Two southwestern Idaho volunteer firefighters called for help before they were killed by flames from a lightning-sparked wildfire that was swept over their stalled tanker truck by gusting wind.
“Fire’s all around us and we need help. Our engine quit,” one of the men radioed Friday night from the Initial Point range fire about eight miles south of Kuna.
“No one could get to them,” U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kim Buxton said Saturday. “They did what they were supposed to do. You’re never supposed to get out of your vehicle.”
The fire was contained around 7 p.m. Saturday after burning over 10,000 acres.
The men were identified as Bill Buttram, 31, and Josh Oliver, 18, of the Kuna Rural Fire Department. Gov. Phil Batt and his wife, Jacque, expressed their sympathy for the victims’ families on Saturday.
Buttram, who worked at the Idaho State Penitentiary, was married and had a 1-year-old son. Oliver was single and worked at a Meridian feed store.
Buxton said they had left a road to do some mop-up work on the fire, which officials thought they had under control about 8:30 p.m. Friday. But then the winds started gusting.
“We had everything cleared,” Kuna Fire Capt. Joe Stear said. “All of a sudden we got a 70 milean-hour wind that entrapped the truck in a wall of flame. That’s it.”
The flames raged out of control, destroying one home, forcing the evacuation of about 270 others in the Desert View and Kuna East subdivisions and blackening an estimated 10,000 acres of grass and brush by midday Saturday.
Besides the home leveled by flames, the BLM said a large feedlot building and several smaller outbuildings were lost. The danger to homes subsided early Saturday as winds let up, and most residents had returned to their homes.
But the damage was done.
“I’m shocked at the terrible tragedy,” Batt, in Burlington, Vt., to attend the National Governors’ Association conference, said by telephone. “These fires present a real hazard and we all tend to take the volunteers for granted throughout the state. This demonstrates the big contribution they make to us and the danger they find themselves in at times. Jacque and I extend our sympathy to the relatives.”
The Initial Point fire was one of at least a dozen sparked on southwestern Idaho’s high desert by a series of thunderstorms accompanied by lightning and high winds Friday night. More fire starts were reported throughout southwestern and westcentral Idaho - including more than 50 in the Boise National Forest - from another series of thunderstorms on Saturday.
In one Boise Foothills fire, residents in an area near Quail Hollow Golf Course were evacuated from their homes Friday night but were allowed to return early Saturday.
“This one was almost under control and it just exploded,” one Boise firefighter said. “The wind came up and it was kind of like an act of God.”
Winds estimated at 50 mph caused numerous power lines to fall, leaving so many households temporarily without electricity that power crews could not keep track of them.
More than 200 local and BLM firefighters were battling the Kuna and Foothills blazes.
Crews also were tackling the Twin Buttes fire about 12 miles south of Glenns Ferry and 10 miles west of Hagerman, but pulled back after about 8 p.m. when erratic winds made it too dangerous. That blaze had charred an estimated 35,000 acres by midday Saturday but was not endangering any structures.
A wet spring and early summer caused lush growth of grasses and brush on Idaho rangelands. But recent hot weather has dried out the vegetation, creating extreme fire danger.
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