When I talked to Dr. Gene Rufi in the Johnny Creek subdivision on the southwest side of Pocatello in 1987 he has just saved his house from fire.
Rufi had climbed on his roof to water down the cedar shakes as the flames of the Johnny Creek fire raged around it, sending off thousands of ambers. He had turned on his sprinklers as well, providing a space between the range fire and his home.
Just down Mountain Loop Road his neighbor Keith Staples wasn’t so lucky. The Aug. 31 fire, driven by wind, raced down the slope and quickly engulfed the cedar shake roofed home surrounded by cedars.
“We were out of town,” Staples said. “We had just come back and it was gone.”
Two miles away the Charlotte Fire burned through much of the same mixture of range land, junipers and city neighborhoods last week. The Charlotte Fire caused far more damage, burning 66 homes and 29 outbuildings.
At the time of the Johnny Creek Fire I had never covered a wild fire. I didn't realize that I reporting what would be recognized as a key factor in determining what houses burn and what ones survive -- what kind of roof they have and the landscaping around the buildings.
Rufi's watering down his roof saved his house while Staples cedar shakes and the tall cedars surrounding his house ignited. It was the lesson that Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen has taught thousands of people about being Fire wise.
A year after I was at Johnny Creek I watched as firefighters were able to save the historic log and cedar shake roofed Old Faithful Inn using Rufi's tactic. They had been helped by two weeks of thinning throughout the area by the U.S Army during that 1988 blaze.
For Staples and his wife Janet the fire forced them to start all over. They spent five years living in a fifth wheel trailer and a truck heading south for the winter.
“We went places and did things we never would have done,” Staples said of the experience.
He feels sorry for the people who have just lost their homes but he had some encouraging words.
“Tell them the sun will come up tomorrow,” Staples, now retired said. “It will all work out.”
When he rebuilt the house in 1991 the big cedars were gone. But he kept the cedar shake roof. Old preferences are hard to kill.