Photo by David Rauzi
A firefighter with Grangeville Rural Fire Department puts a spray of water on burning straw bales. Last Thursday, the load caught fire, quickly spreading to and consuming the semitruck and trailer.
As of Wednesday, August 23, 2017
White Bird Grade semitruck, straw bale fire (Aug. 17. 2017) - 1
White Bird Grade semitruck, straw bale fire (Aug. 17. 2017) - 2
White Bird Grade semitruck, straw bale fire (Aug. 17. 2017) - 3
WHITE BIRD Commercial truck traffic was blocked for several hours last Thursday evening as multiple local, state and federal firefighting agencies attacked an enflamed straw bale load atop an engulfed semitruck and trailer to prevent a wildfire start into the canyon.
A vehicle mechanical problem is the suspected cause for the Aug. 18 fire reported seven miles north of White Bird on U.S. Highway 95 that destroyed a 12-ton load of straw bales, a 1992 Volvo semitruck and a 42-foot trailer. No injuries were reported.
Driver Robert Bumgarner of Cambridge, along with his son, was hauling the straw to a dairy in Parma when he noticed the fire.
“I looked back and could see I had some flames,” he said. “I couldn’t brake for anything.”
At this point, according to both Bumgarner, Idaho County Detective Brian Hewson and witnesses, flames were snapping bail tie-down straps as he bypassed pullout areas where the fire would spread to adjacent grass, finally stopping adjacent a rock wall on a right-hand curve just south of milepost 230.
“I jumped out, and my son jumped back in to grab something,” Bumgarner said, “and the cab was already engulfed. It didn’t take long.”
While the cause is yet undetermined, Bumgarner suspects it was due to a backfire from the truck, possibly related to jake brake work they had conducted not long prior to the incident.
Multiple 911 callers reported the incident starting at 4:50 p.m. near milepost 229, of a semi-truck on fire stopped in the southbound lane. Less than 10 minutes later, Idaho County deputies reported in multiple grass spots on fire along a three-mile stretch of the highway.
Along with ICSO personnel, Heckman Ranch arrived with a water tender, according to Hewson, and began wetting the grass on either side of U.S. 95 to prevent spot fires. Wildland firefighters and brush trucks from Idaho Department of Lands and U.S. Forest Service responded, along with spotting aircraft, and 10 personnel and three trucks from Grangeville Rural Fire Department (GRFD).
“Straw and hay is hard to put out,” said GRFD Chief Bob Mager, partly due to its compaction, so the first efforts were directed on preventing the fire spreading to the hillside and White Bird Battlefield. The Heckmans then brought in a tractor with a round bale on the front, used to break apart the burning straw, pushing it off the side to the road and allowing crews to get into the smoldering core.
Meanwhile, U.S. 95 was blocked: Semi-truck traffic was stopped south of White Bird and also close to the White Bird summit; however, small vehicle traffic was detoured along Old U.S. 95. The Idaho Transportion Department (ITD) dispatched a front-end loader to the scene around 7:23 p.m., along with traffic control personnel. On the loader’s arrival, Mager said they were able to break apart the load and then flip the trailer to reach additional hot spots, and move the debris off the roadway.
Initially, Salmon River Rural Fire District (SRRFD) was dispatched, but as they were short of manpower at the time, according to Mager, GRFD was subsequently requested – despite it being out of its district – to fight fire along the highway. Once crews with SRRFD and ITD were able to take over the scene, GRFD could turn over control and leave.