THE CAPE HORN FIRE has left the businesses of downtown Bayview struggling but looking forward to a better year in 2016.
The extremely dry summer led to increased fires through the northern Idaho region. According to information provided by Idaho Department of Land (IDL), “Statewide, 742,000 acres were burned by wildfire. Within the IDL fire protection areas, there were 297 fires that burned 80,940 acres. Sixty homes were destroyed and 78 other structures burned.”
The total cost of the damage last summer was approximately $60 million. Overall, for much of July, August and September, it appeared as if the smoke might never clear, and there was a palpable fear that another fire would begin.
The Cape Horn Fire on Lake Pend Oreille was certainly not the only fire last summer, but it’s one that hit the iconic tourist destination of Bayview.
The cause of the Cape Horn fire is still under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service, the lead investigator, but several reports allude to a group of boaters requiring assistance who lit a flare that accidentally ignited nearby brush. The fire eventually spread from the shoreline to the hilltop overlooking Cape Horn Road.
Bill Steele is the deputy marshal for the state of Idaho and was part of the investigation team for the fire. He is also the safety and training division chief and is the command officer in the Timberlake Fire Protection District, which covers the Bayview area. Steele was on hand for the fire’s duration during the first 36 hours. He managed the influx of trucks and resources for the fire fighters, which consisted of an interagency Incident Management Team (IMT). IMTs are dispatched according to the complexity of the fire. The Cape Horn fire required a Type 2 IMT, which added about 55 people to the local fire fighters and assistance crews. Photo of the Cape Horn Fire in Bayview, Idaho
“We had suppression activity for 10 days (but) the fire was under control after the first 48 hours,” Steele said. Once the IDL’s IMT arrived, they worked for another eight days plus two weeks of patrolling for fire.
Increased winds didn’t help the fire, and in all, 1,350 acres were burned. Nine homes were destroyed, one home was damaged and five other structures were lost in the fire, according to the IDL. In all, the Cape Horn fire cost $6.5 million to fight. Steele noted, however, that the fire could have been worse.
“We were gearing up – there were other fires going, and there was a wind event that was expected which could have grown two to three times in size,” he said. “So we were prepared for that because it would have gone downtown, and it did within about 100 feet of the area.”
Bayview on Guard
For Bayview resident Herb Huseland, who lives just above the Scenic Bay area and writes a personal blog, the fire was close enough for him to heed the voluntary evacuation by the Sheriff ’s Department. Although many people stayed, officials did not let any residents who had evacuated back into the area. Cape Horn Fire in Bayview, Idaho devistates
“There was some mishandling of information about when people could return to their homes,” Huseland said. He was away from his home for two days before he attempted to return. He found that they weren’t letting residents drive back. He eventually left his car parked elsewhere and got a ride to his home from a neighbor on an ATV, which ironically was allowed past the road block. He also criticized television crews for not reporting onsite.
“They stopped visiting and went off press releases, quoting what percentage of the fire was contained. It gave an impression that there was smoke everywhere, but we had blue skies,” he said. Crews eventually returned to Bayview.
The remnants of the fire are evident as one drives along Cape Horn Road. There are numerous tree trunks along the hillside where fire fighters cut trees to create a fire breakage and deplete the fire’s fuel supply.
“The fire moved rapidly toward downtown Bayview,” Huseland said. “I can see where they stopped the fire.” From his backyard, a line of burned tree trunks borders the yard of one of the homes on the hill behind him.
Bayview has notoriously poor cell phone reception, which added to the lack of information coming in to town. Some businesses, such as the Captain’s Wheel, had to close because several of their employees live outside of Bayview and the road block prevented them from entering. But others stayed open to supply residents and fire fighters with whatever they needed. Ralph’s Coffee Shop, already a center point for residents, became an information center.
“At around 1:30pm on Sunday, I walked out and saw the smoke. We didn’t know what was going on at first,” said owner Ralph Jones. “I didn’t sleep much that first night (and) watched the Vista Bay area burn. That second night, we got a little more sleep – we knew we weren’t going to burn.”
The road block was right below the shop, and Jones said that a large amount of residents left. But Jones stayed open. For those who could get a phone call through, Jones was able to let them know what was happening and whether their homes had been affected.
“Those were the best calls,” he said.
The fire’s damage has gone beyond what it consumed. Because the fire happened at the beginning of Bayview Daze and at the height of the fishing season, Jones had a large inventory of food. Although the power only went out momentarily, he gave away the food and though he didn’t charge, people gave to the tip jar.
Jones said the smoke kept a lot of people from returning or visiting Bayview and that the number of park cancellations in July was huge. Jones said he is off about 20 percent of his usual annual earnings. He also noted that a depressed Canadian dollar and low oil prices also decreased tourist traffic.
“(The fire) certainly made for a depressed summer,” he said.
Like Ralph’s, the local convenience store, the Bayview Mercantile, stayed open. Manager and Bayview resident, Marie Streater, was on hand for much of the fire.
“About 100-plus fire fighters and hotshot crews were here, and they set up camp in the park. Streater chose to wait out the fire but was prepared to leave.
“Until it hit the marina, I wasn’t leaving. I have two houses here and I work here. We had the car packed up the first day, but once you left, you couldn’t come back,” she said.
Streater and others watched as helicopters dropped fire retardants over the fire. She described the fire fighters that first night as ants going up and down the hill because of their head lamps.
“It looked like a war zone,” she said. “It was scary when it was coming over the hill. (We also) saw some of the houses explode that were at the bottom. It’s pretty humbling to see something like that. It makes you appreciate what you’ve got.”
Mario’s Mexican Restaurant also stayed open and helped feed the fire fighters.
“We had up to 200 fire fighters for about three weeks,” said owner Mario De Leon. Not long after the Cape Horn fire was under control, the Three Sisters fire started nearby. In spite of the heavy fire fighter traffic, losing the tourist crowds for the season has affected Mario’s as well for the year since Bayview businesses make most of their annual income during the summer.
“It hurt a lot of businesses. The only thing that helped were people coming in from the outside to look,” he said. Like Jones, he is looking forward to the coming year for a better business climate.
“They’ll probably come back again next summer,” he said.