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The Legacy Of Firestorm A Child’s Shy Half-Smile Reminds Family Of The Man Who Died Fighting Wildfires

Wed., Oct. 16, 1996

The 4-1/2-year-old boy wasn’t even born when the barrage of wind, dust and scorching heat swept through North Idaho.

Yet, Mason Upchurch, with his little-kid charm and quirky smile, is part of its legacy - a bittersweet reminder of what was lost.

“He’s kind of shy-acting; he gives you that kind of half-smile when he looks at you - just like his dad did,” said Vicki Upchurch, the boy’s grandmother.

When Firestorm ‘91 consumed part of North Idaho five years ago today, it took the boy’s father with it. Joe Upchurch was 26 years old when he died, leaving behind a tight-knit family and a wife who was five months pregnant.

“My regret is that he never got to see his son,” Vicki Upchurch said Tuesday on the eve of the anniversary of her son’s death. “He wanted a son so bad.”

Firestorm ‘91 left a scorch mark on the Inland Northwest that refuses to be erased. Two people died in the 93 fires that burned 51,000 acres across Eastern Washington and North Idaho. One hundred twenty homes were destroyed; nearly $20 million in property was lost.

It remains one of the Inland Northwest’s worst disasters.

“Little Joe” Upchurch was working as a mechanic when the fires began their onslaught. He didn’t hesitate when he was asked to help battle the flames near Garwood.

Joe was driving a front-end loader on a dirt road when the soft shoulder suddenly gave way. The heavy machine tumbled down a 40-foot embankment and landed on top of him, killing him instantly.

“It was the hardest thing we ever went through,” Vicki Upchurch said, her voice wavering.

Joe was the oldest of Vicki and Sherman Upchurch’s four children. In the five years since his death, they’ve talked about him to fill the void he left behind.

“There’s probably not a day that goes by that we don’t talk about things he’s done or what he would be doing,” Vicki Upchurch said.

Joe’s brothers and father will spend the anniversary of his death in the woods hunting for elk. It’s an annual family tradition Joe loved.

Mason, a gift left behind for the family, helps them remember Joe. The boy soothes their loss.

Although Joe was never given medical confirmation, he told his family before he died that he knew his unborn child was going to be a boy. “He wanted to teach him how to hunt and how to fish and work on cars,” Vicki said.

Kelly, Joe’s wife, has remarried. She married Dean Johnston, one of Joe’s best friends - a boy he grew up and went to school with in Athol.

Vicki Upchurch also finds comfort in that. “I know he’ll be good to Kelly and he’ll be good to the baby,” she said. Mason “calls Dean dad, yet he knows he has another dad. He has a dad that lives in heaven.”

Firestorm ‘91 has left its mark on others as well.

“I remember the pine needles blowing by on fire,” said Marc Ghirarduzzi, a Hayden Lake firefighter. He had been a firefighter for less than a year when he was called out to the storm.

“It was pretty crazy, we were everywhere,” he said. “It was one call after another.”

Hauser Lake Fire Chief Myron Richardson uses two words to sum up the image: “Fires everywhere.” The blazes would torch three buildings in his district before it was done.

“A day or two later they told me I better go to sleep before I fell asleep right there,” he said Tuesday.

But Richardson and Ghirarduzzi said some good has blossomed out of the disaster.

People in his area are far more careful with fire now. They are much better about removing combustible trees and brush from around their homes. Richardson said he’s gone to far fewer uncontrolled slash burns since then.

Emergency workers took their firestorm experiences and improved communication between departments, Ghirarduzzi said.

Still, for those who battled the blaze, Joe Upchurch’s headstone says it all.

“The memories will never fade. Firestorm 91”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos; Map of major area fires


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