The cause of last summer’s Cape Horn fire near Bayview, Idaho, remains unknown, investigators said Friday, even after they learned a woman camping where the fire started had shot a signal flare that apparently landed near the point of origin hours before the wildfire took off.
Extensive tests on soil and material found at the ignition spot did not uncover residue of a flare or other incendiary device, such as fireworks, the Idaho Department of Lands said in a report a year after the fire destroyed nine homes and charred over 1,300 acres on the south end of Lake Pend Oreille.
Without proof of the cause or the person responsible, the state cannot show negligence or recover any of the nearly $6 million it took to extinguish the blaze in July 2015. Property owners also aren’t able to pursue claims for damages.
Public and private land burned in the Cape Horn fire, which threatened hundreds of homes, cabins and businesses and forced hundreds of people to evacuate for days. It took 12 days to contain the blaze.
The investigation into how it started remains open, and state officials said they welcome additional leads.
The woman who fired two signal flares from a lakeshore campsite where the fire began did not initially tell investigators about the flares. She also admitted to destroying the flare gun afterward.
Investigators pursued the flare as a likely cause of the fire but found no evidence to support it, said David Groeschl, the state forester and deputy director of the Department of Lands.
“So the materials in a signal flare, a marine flare, do not match with anything that was found at the origin,” Groeschl said Friday. “Could something come up later? Possibly. That’s why this is ongoing.”
He added, “We have to take the appropriate measures, do the right testing and base the findings on the facts.”
Lisa Gibson and Kim Cannon, described as area residents, had boated to a small beach between Cape Horn and Evans Landing for the holiday weekend, according to the state’s investigation. The two friends boated into Bayview on July 4 to watch a fireworks show, then returned by boat to their campsite that night.
About 2:30 a.m. July 5, a strong windstorm sent waves 5 to 8 feet high onto their beach, swamping their boat. Gibson dialed 911 at 4:12 a.m. to report their boat was swamped but that they were safe.
Gibson told investigators she then fired two signal flares to “see how they worked.” One was described as a “dud” that blew back to shore, landing in a rocky area about 20 feet south of the camp. The other flare went high and into the lake, she said. One witness reported seeing a flare about that time.
In their first interview with the U.S. Forest Service, Gibson and Cannon did not admit to firing the flares. Gibson then called back and told investigators she fired one flare, investigators said in their report. Upon further questioning, she admitted she had cut the plastic flare gun into small pieces and placed them in a plastic grocery bag for disposal. Those pieces were recovered by investigators. Gibson also called them again and admitted she had fired a second flare.
State investigator Bob Helmer said the women cooperated with investigators.
“We didn’t know about the flares when we started asking them questions. Until they talked to us – we had some indications from other interviews that there may have been – but we did not have information about the flares until they told us.”
But Helmer did say the destruction of the flare gun raised questions.
“Why are they doing that?” he said. “What was the need to do that if you’re going to be forthright with what was happening?”
Asked how a finding of negligence would apply if investigators found evidence the flare had ignited the fire, Groeschl said the state would not have found the women negligent for firing the flares out of distress to seek help. But they already had been in contact with 911, he said.
“So it wasn’t an issue of distress that the flare gun was fired. It was more of wanting to see how the flare gun worked,” and therefore negligence would have applied, Groeschl said.
Gibson and Cannon remain “persons of interest” in the case because of their presence at the scene, the close proximity to the fire’s start and the fact they reported the fire first, he said.
Four investigators verified the point of the fire’s origin near the women’s campsite. At that spot they found a white object that “appears to be pressed and layered, similar to a paper shotgun wad or similar item,” their report states. The item and soil samples were examined by the Idaho State Police, the FBI and a private lab. The object appears it originally may have been round with a diameter about the size of a nickel, the report states.
The tests determined the white material was consistent with plant material, Groeschl said. Investigators haven’t concluded what the object was.
If a flare had ignited the fire at that spot, it likely would have left a residue in the soil, Helmer said.
A photo taken of the campsite later shows a burned tent, lawn chairs, cooler and fishing tackle box. The flames did not reach the campsite until sometime after the women were rescued from the shore, investigators said.
The women said they did not have a campfire at their site, and the boaters who rescued them said they saw no signs of a campfire, which would have been prohibited under a fire restriction in place.
No evidence of cigarettes was found either, the state said.
Gibson called 911 to report the fire around 12:16 p.m., and the Bonner County Marine Patrol responded. Nearby boaters saw the women in distress, landed on the beach and rescued the pair around 12:30 p.m. as the marine patrol arrived.
Matt Jones, who had been boating with his family in Scenic Bay, plucked Gibson and Cannon from the shoreline as smoke was billowing from the steep and rocky terrain above the campsite.
While returning to the Farragut boat launch, “Jones overheard one of the women talking about a flare gun,” the report states.
The fire started on Forest Service land and spread through timber belonging to Stimson Lumber Co. Strong winds fanned the flames, and the fire soon crested the Cape Horn Peak ridgeline and raced toward houses on the other side.
Investigators determined it was human-caused, not sparked by lightning, and ruled out arson or commercial logging as potential causes.
Almost 500 acres of the burn area are owned by Stimson Lumber, with another 331 acres under other private ownership. Another 260 acres are Forest Service land, and 194 acres are state endowment lands.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.