Boise Learns Lessons From Pocatello Fire

Jul 5, 2012

Pocatello’s Charlotte Fire destroyed nearly 70 homes last weekend. Some Boise fire fighters went to help battle that blaze,and they brought some lessons back with them.

J.D. Ellis relaxes on his back porch. The Boise Battalion Chief is taking a much needed day-off after spending last weekend fighting the Charlotte fire near Pocatello. Ellis says when it was contained he saw a neighborhood of nothing but blackened foundations, except one patch of green.  

“I sat on a ridge looking over and saw this pristine tennis court," ellis says.  "The foundation next to it looked like that house would have been very big, but there was absolutely nothing left of any remnant of the house, and yet here’s this tennis court that wasn’t even dirty.”

Ellis says he and six other Boise fire fighters went to Pocatello mostly to help but also to learn.

“What the Pocatello fire really brings out is the need to command and control and to coordinate resources," he says. "We have a lot of different agencies that we’ve always said that need to work together before an incident because during an emergency is a horrible time to introduce yourself.”

Communication and most of what Ellis takes from Pocatello are really reinforcements of lessons learned from Boise’s Oregon Trail Fire. Ellis helped battle that four years ago. It leveled ten homes and took one woman’s life.

Since that time Boise’s fire department has been working on its emergency coordination system, what Ellis calls the All Hazards Emergency Management Team. It’s meant to link up fire departments, police, transportation officials, even neighborhood associations. Ellis says it’s now quite strong, but it hasn’t yet faced real disaster on the scale of Pocatello’s Charlotte Fire.

Another lesson reinforced in Pocatello is prevention. Ellis says in the Charlotte and Oregon Trail fires large amounts of dry vegetation surrounded homes. He says in the last four years Boise has made great improvements in maintaining defensible space around at-risk homes. He says neighborhood associations in areas near wild lands have taken the lead in thinning fuels, some even bringing in goats to eat the grass. But he is concerned that conditions are right for big fires around Boise this year.

“It seems like many years we have so many factors that make it like this could be a very bad year for us, for significant fires. And then we don’t get a spark, those elements don’t come together," he says. "So I don’t want to alarm people but I don’t want to lull people either.”

Ellis says there are still homes near open space in Boise that have not taken steps to reduce fire risk. And all it takes is a spark.