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As residents rebuild, Orofino Hospital Fire reveals challenges of urban fires

A drone photo shows the devastation of the Wixson Heights Neighborhood in Orofino, Idaho.
(Courtesy of Lauren Paterson)
A drone photo shows the devastation of the Wixson Heights Neighborhood in Orofino, Idaho.

Joanne Schwartz and her husband John count themselves as some of the lucky ones.

On August 29, the Orofino Hospital Fire scorched 53 acres, destroying six homes and multiple outbuildings in the Wixson Heights neighborhood, according to the Idaho Department of Lands.

The blue Schwartz home sits on the end of the road where most houses caught fire. John Schwartz was home when he heard his neighbors yelling to get out.

“I went to the backyard and started hooking up sprinklers and then a wall of flame come out here and hit Baker’s house. It must have been 40, 50 feet in the air and that house just exploded,” he said.

Joanne Schwartz was already downtown when the evacuation order came. The side of their house is burned with damaged windows.

“It was just the heat that hit our house and melted all of the siding, clear down to the plyboard,” she said. “The windows held. The inside panes are still there, they’re cracked.”

Kane Steinbruecker is the chief fire warden for the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association (CPTPA). He ran the operation for the Orofino Hospital fire.

“In the first initial shift, we had 10 type-6 fire engines, two dozers, a helicopter, a water tender, and a 20-person hand crew,” said Steinbruecker.

The organization protects nearly a million acres of state and federal lands. During the fire, there were 100 structures in danger’s way.

“A high school, a prison, two hospitals … So certainly some significant values at risk there,” said Steinbruecker.

James Black is a local helicopter pilot who contracts with CPTPA. Usually when he gets the call to go on a fire, he gets a text with the coordinates. But that day, “I said ‘Where’s the fire?’ and they go, ‘Walk out the hanger and you’ll see it,’ because it was right there,” said Black.

Using a 120-gallon bucket hitched to a helicopter, Black spent three and a half hours fighting the flames from the air. Black said he loaded and dropped 53 buckets that day on the Orofino Hospital Fire, scooping nearly 1000 pounds of water with each bucket from the nearby Clearwater River.

Saving trees is one thing, “but when it’s urban like this, it’s different,” said Black. He was up all night from the adrenaline rush after flying in high winds and stormy weather.

Black said he grew up in north Idaho and has flown helicopters for more than 40 years. “This is home,” he said. “I’m just glad to help people out.”

Steinbrucker is also a local who has been fighting fires in the area for nearly 30 years.

“When I started years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have 100 or 125 fires in a season … but they were fairly small,” he said. “They were located in the backcountry, or what seemed to be the backcountry. There wasn’t homes located there at the time.”

As more people move to rural places in the Northwest, like the Idaho backcountry, the wildland urban interface expands.

“They’re not making any more land. So our urban footprint is expanding out into the forest further than it traditionally has,” said Steinbruecker.

More people living in the woods leads to more risks for firefighters, like power lines and propane lines causing fires, or a lack of escape roads and safety routes, he said.

“Smoke that comes off of structures when they burn is certainly more hazardous to our firefighters than the traditional wood smoke, or grass,” said Steinbruecker.

Luckily, no one died in the Orofino Hospital Fire. But many people are still without homes.

“It’s terrible for anyone to lose a home, because it’s more than just stuff for a lot of people,” said Taylor Davidson, the manager of local restaurant, House of JuJu.

Although he moved here about two years ago, he said meeting so many people through the restaurant has made him feel connected to the small-town community.

“It broke my heart, so I wanted to do something,” said Davidson.

On Tuesday, September 12, staff worked for free, along with the bands. A jar was set out to collect money for the families who lost homes in the fire, and half of the proceeds from the restaurant’s evening sales were donated.

People in town have also been donating items like towels, bedding and handmade quilts.

“Here at City Hall, it’s kind of been the drop-off location for certain things in support of the families, and we’re making sure that they get distributed,” said Orofino City Administrator Ryan Smathers.

In Wixson Heights at the site of the burned homes, the faint scent of smoke still lingers in the air.

Schwartz said while some people in the neighborhood are still waiting to hear from insurance adjusters, most folks already have, and they’re going ahead with plans to rebuild.

“They’re strong. They’re doing well,” she said. “I mean everybody’s pretty much gone back to work, the kids are in school.”

After the fire, Schwartz said the neighbors all got together to have lunch to show that, even though they lost their homes, they’re still looking out for each other.

“Most everybody’s coming back,” she said. “We’ll have our good community.”

Raised along the Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho, Lauren Paterson reports on culture and socioeconomics in the Pacific Northwest. Her stories focus on working class and tribal communities.