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Fire caused by crew working on tower burns 1,100 acres

Weiser Signal American of Weiser, Idaho

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A fire three miles east of Weiser that officials said was started by a crew doing maintenance on a cellphone tower blew up Friday afternoon into a large wildfire that was not put out until Saturday afternoon and burned 1,100 acres.

The Weiser Rural Fire Department was the first to respond to the River Fire when the call came in at about 3:45 p.m. on Friday. The fire started on public land in the foothills above Weiser River Road near a cellphone tower.

Battalion Chief Jeremy Black said the fire burned in difficult terrain that was hard to get to with engine trucks. A constant breeze fanned the flames through dry brush and pushed the fire to the south down the hill and into draws that were all but inaccessible by vehicle.

As the fire grew, crews from the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, along with Midvale Fire Protection, Payette Rural Fire Department and Weiser City Fire and Rescue were called for assistance. Weiser city firemen were called for mutual aid and to handle structure protection.

Kyla and Doug Dickerson watched the fast-moving fire come down the hill with increasing concern at about 7 p.m. on Friday. Doug and his son used heavy equipment to dig a firebreak around the family's property off of Weiser River Road. Whipped by wind, the flames jumped over the firebreak a couple of times. At one point the fire was within 100 feet of their shed and maybe 200 feet from their home.

What saved the day, in addition to hastily carving out the firebreak, was the BLM official who called in a converted Boeing 737 jet tanker from Redmond, Ore. When the large air tanker arrived, it made a pass and dropped a huge load of retardant on the flames near the Dickerson's property.

"It was pretty close. It's not something I'd like to do again on a Friday night," Kyla Dickerson said.

The BLM fire official told Dickerson that the firebreak they created with a tractor and disc around their property probably helped save their structures. They lost a couple of power poles and some fence to the fire. A neighbor's pasture burned up, but neighbors helped the Dickersons get their animals out.

Once Boise BLM fire crews showed up, they took over management of the fire, Black said, because the fire was burning on public land. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service brought fire engines and heavy equipment like bulldozers to fight the fire.

Fire crews were able to make significant gains against the fire when air support in the form of air tankers and helicopters with dump buckets arrived and hit the flames. There were five single-engine air tankers, one heavy air tanker and helicopters. One helicopter hauled a 340-gallon bucket of water and the Eurocopter filled a 240-gallon bucket from the Weiser River.

The BLM staged two helicopters at the Weiser Airport, according to airport manager Jim Metzger. He said fuel trucks and crews rolled through the airport gate to support the helicopter operations. They brought their own fuel, including a truck with a 2,600-gallon tank.

"They worked the fire from here," Metzger said.

Black said he spent 12 hours on Friday fighting the wildfire. The fire was fairly well contained by Friday evening, but Weiser Rural Fire Department was back mopping up the fire on Saturday. In all, about 15 members of the Weiser Rural Fire Department were on the fire.

Black said much of the fire was fought by aircraft because of the difficult terrain. There were some BLM handcrews that also attacked the flames. The cause of the fire was determined to be from a welding and grinding operation going on at the cellphone tower at the top of the hill.

"It was a tough fire. It's only June and fire conditions are really high right now," he said.

Earlier in the week, on June 11, the Weiser Rural Fire Department responded to a call for mutual assistance as a fast-moving grass fire fanned by winds burned perilously close to a couple of homes on the outskirts of Payette.

Payette Fire Chief Steve Castenada said the fire started about 7:15 p.m. just north of the Payette city limits on Seventh Avenue North near Center Street. The fire began when a homeowner using a burn barrel left it unattended and a tree close by caught fire that spread to brush.

The fire burned through grass and brush and moved south 'toward the Payette city limits, scorching 35 to 40 acres and burning a shed with five cars. Castenada said the fire at one point came within 25 feet of two homes and threatened more. He said the potential was there for a major incident.

"It was kind of wind driven and the wind was pushing it toward the south," Castenada said.

Weiser Rural Fire was called for structure protection and brought an engine and a command vehicle. Ontario and New Plymouth fire departments also responded to the call for mutual aid and brought brush trucks.

The fire was cleared at 11 p.m. In total, about 30 firefighters from different departments were on the fire.


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Original Publication Date: June 17, 2015

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