'Disaster' averted

Volunteer firefighters battle blaze, save multiple homes in Carlin Bay community

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SHAWN GUST/Press Neighboring trees are scorched among the ashes of a home that caught fire Tuesday, October 2 in Carlin Bay near Harrison. The East Fire District volunteers are credited with containing the blaze that could have easily spread to nearby homes.

People might remember it as the night a group of volunteer firefighters - with an average age nearing 60 - and community members banded together to save the Carlin Bay community from a raging disaster.

Late at night on Tuesday of last week, Oct. 2, a 5,000-square-foot house along Highway 97 at Carlin Cove Court burst into flames, with extremely dry conditions on the ground and strong winds blowing embers a half mile or more away.

With the more than a dozen spot fires that ignited throughout the surrounding area, fires burned well into the next day.

As the home burned, the 100-foot-tall trees surrounding it were torched in the flames.

After the fire, all that was recognizable of the house was the tall, stone chimney, some rock walls and concrete, along with the metal shell of a burned-out SUV.

The mostly retired volunteers of the East Side Fire District were all that stood in the way of the fire racing out of control that night and taking out more than two dozen houses on the scenic east shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

"We may not be as fast and strong," fire district Chief Doug Allman said this week. "But we like to think we're smart."

Nobody was injured.

Terry Crawford, a captain for the district's station No. 1, said, "If it wasn't for the volunteers, the fire would have taken out the entire Carlin Bay community."

He said about 30 homes were in jeopardy, including the homes just across Highway 97 and up the hill in Carlin Bay Vistas.

"It was very close to a disaster," said Dave Banks, one of the firefighters for the district. He's also an EMT for the district and for Harrison Ambulance. "It was scary."

Kootenai County Fire and Rescue and the Idaho Department of Lands helped fight the fire.

The fire district needed three of its engines, three water tenders, a couple brush trucks and a fire boat. The county sent another engine and fire boat.

With the high winds, the fire boats got tossed around in the waves near the shoreline.

About 15 volunteers from the district fought the blaze, with another half dozen from the county.

"Embers were blowing a quarter mile, starting spot fires all over our community," Banks said. "Embers were coming over the top of my house. My house was in danger. They weren't just little embers, either."

The quarter- to half-inch-sized embers rained down on the Carlin Bay Marina hundreds of yards away from the fire, burning through canopies on the dock.

He said spot fires were being put out two days later.

"People pitched in with garden hoses and were up most of the night," Banks said. "It was a long night."

Daniel Rife, an operator for Eastlake Water Services, said 63,000 gallons of water was supplied to fight the fires.

"That fire (at the house) was spectacular," said Rife, who lives a half mile from it. "The glow from the fire was unbelievable."

He thanked the volunteer firefighters.

"If it wasn't for the volunteers, we would have lost a lot of homes up here," Rife said. "We would have had a disaster."

At its worst, he said, the fire potentially could have wiped out 30 to 40 homes.

A formal investigation into the cause of the fire began Thursday, and will continue today.

The houses just north and south of the burned home were remarkably saved.

The fire burned a wood staircase of the home to the south, burning just a foot from the home.

The home that was destroyed cost more than $1 million to build, Allman said. If more homes were lost, the total value of destroyed property would have soared.

A large propane tank at a home next door to the fire was stressed during the fire, but its venting system worked as designed and released propane and prevented an explosion. Still, firefighters dumped massive amounts of water on it to keep it cool.

The home directly north, which just sits feet away, was spared any damage.

"The potential was there for a real disaster, but it never got to that point," said Allman.

SHAWN GUST/Press The remains of an SUV are among the rubble of the recent house fire.

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