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Family sues over deadly Tamarack Resort fire

A late-night fire at a house on Whitewater Drive in Donnelly on Friday night killed four people and injured one, officials said. Among them were members of the Idaho National Guard. (Courtesy)
A late-night fire at a house on Whitewater Drive in Donnelly on Friday night killed four people and injured one, officials said. Among them were members of the Idaho National Guard. (Courtesy)
By Audrey Dutton Idaho Statesman

TAMARACK, Idaho – Erin Smith was the first person to reserve the Tamarack Resort vacation rental at 541 Whitewater Drive last year, the weekend before the Fourth of July. She arrived the afternoon of June 30 with her husband, daughter, a family friend and his son. They found the trappings of a typical high-end Valley County cabin: a spacious home with deck, grill, fireplaces and a fire pit.

One of those fireplaces would explode that night, killing everyone but Smith’s husband, William “Mitch” Smith, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in March.

“Mr. Smith made heroic efforts to save his family and friends but was ultimately driven from the structure by the intense heat, smoke and flames,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Smith collapsed in the road, knowing that his wife, daughter and friends would not survive.”

The lawsuit — brought by Erin Smith’s husband, parents and estate — accuses the current and prior owners of the cabin, a fireplace company and various resort companies of causing the four deaths.

Valley County Coroner Scott Carver identified the dead last year as Erin Smith, 34; her daughter Autumn Smith, 7; James “Jim” Harper III, 49; and James “JJ” Harper IV, 14.

The Smiths and Harper served in the National Guard together. Erin Smith made headlines in 2016 when she became one of the first female enlisted soldiers to serve in a combat role as a tank crew member.

What Smith remembers

The lawsuit lays out in detail Smith’s recollections of the afternoon and evening of the catastrophe:

The Smiths drove with Harper and his son to the Tamarack area on a Friday.

After getting keys to the cabin from Tamarack Lodge, the group drove to the home and unloaded their vehicle. They got to work making dinner on the gas barbecue on the deck, then tried to start a fire in the outdoor propane pit. They used a key to turn a gas valve but couldn’t get the fire pit to work. They also noticed that the cabin didn’t have some of the basic necessities, so the Smiths went back to the lodge, where they “were advised to keep trying and if they could not get it to work, a maintenance person would come by the following day.”

When they got back to the cabin, the group decided to start a fire in one of the fireplaces. They couldn’t find any instructions on how to use the gas-fueled fireplace in the downstairs living room, but eventually figured out how to get it started with a remote control.

The group then decided to switch rooms, heading upstairs to the main floor, where the living room’s large windows offered views of the valley below. There, they found a fireplace with wood logs placed over crumpled and shredded paper. They saw a gas valve on the wall next to the fireplace, similar to the valve outside for the gas fire pit. Harper took charge of starting the fire and turned on the valve while trying to light the paper on fire. When he couldn’t get a flame, he turned the valve off, then tried again a couple of times. The last time he tried to start a fire, it caused a “massive explosion.”

Rocked by the explosion, the stone facade of the fireplace fell off the chimney. Boulders, drywall and debris fell down into the living room and trapped Harper, his son, Erin Smith and her daughter. William “Mitch” Smith was standing by one of the windows, far enough away to be clear of the debris.

Smith watched as the room burst into flames, and realized that his family and friends were buried. He was able to reach Harper’s son, who was still conscious, but he couldn’t lift the debris off the boy. Smith used the boy’s cellphone to dial 911, then continued trying to rescue his loved ones as the fire spread. Neighbors joined him in trying to extract Harper’s son.

He searched for a fire extinguisher but couldn’t find one. One of the neighbors tried in vain to stop the fire with bowls of water from the kitchen sink.

Smith and the others were eventually driven from the cabin by the flames, heat and smoke. Smith was taken by ambulance to the St. Luke’s hospital in McCall, where he was treated for physical injuries, shock and “severe emotional trauma.”

The aftermath of the fire at a Tamarack Resort cabin in June 2017. (Idaho Statesman)
The aftermath of the fire at a Tamarack Resort cabin in June 2017. (Idaho Statesman)

Lawsuit accuses owners, businesses

The Idaho state fire marshal investigated last year and determined that the fire originated from an uncapped gas line. When Harper turned on the valve, propane flowed into the area behind the fireplace and built up in the chimney/fireplace area. It eventually reacted explosively to the flame on the paper in the fireplace.

The fireplace was unlike the others in the home. It wasn’t even supposed to use gas, the lawsuit said.

The house had changed hands in recent years.

Greg and Gretchen Carrougher owned the cabin in 2013, when they sold it to Robert and Lisa Cowe, partly under an “owner carry” loan, the lawsuit said. But the Cowes defaulted, so the Carroughers took back the property in May 2017, it said. Almost right away, the Carroughers decided to add it to the pool of vacation rentals in the resort town south of McCall, according to the lawsuit. Online real estate listings show the owners also were trying to sell it for $1.75 million.

In the past few years, the property had been modified, the lawsuit said. The Cowes in 2015 decided to replace a gas-burning fireplace in the main-floor living room with the wood-burning fireplace. In the process, Robert Cowe disconnected the gas pipe, but according to the lawsuit didn’t make sure that it was capped to keep gas from flowing. The Cowes hired a company, Master Craft Hearth and Home, to install the wood-burning unit, among other changes to the house. Robert Cowe told the company that he had not capped the gas line, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit points fingers at everyone involved, accusing the Carroughers of renting out a home in hazardous condition, the Cowes and the fireplace contractor for leaving an out-of-service gas line open, and several Tamarack resort entities of listing and managing a rental property that wasn’t safe.

All defendants but the Cowes have responded in court filings to the allegations, saying they either deny the claims or don’t know enough to say whether they’re true. They indirectly or directly blame the explosion on Smith, his family and friends who were killed in the blaze, or other people or circumstances.

The plaintiffs didn’t say in the lawsuit how much money they are seeking.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and several defendants declined to comment to the Statesman on behalf of their clients. The Cowes did not respond to messages Friday.

The Smith family filed the lawsuit in Ada County. The next step in the case is for the judge to rule on a request to move it to Valley County instead. The defendants argue that since none of them are in Ada County, the case should be moved to their location.

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