Boise, Idaho, USA — The air was still thick with the smell of smoke when fire crews allowed Christopher Lee and his wife to return to their charred neighborhood and collect their belongings or what was left of them.
The couple told a police officer their address, only to realize several homes no longer bore numbers.
A wildfire tore through the Lees’ Boise subdivision Monday night, fueled by sagebrush and winds that gusted as high as 50 mph. The body of an English professor was found Tuesday in one of the nearly 20 homes destroyed or damaged during the blaze. Officials were trying to determine if the fire killed her.
Boise Assistant Fire Marshal Mark Senteno toured the charred neighborhood Tuesday morning, counting driveways where homes had been reduced to blackened rubble. He said 10 homes were destroyed.
“This has been the most devastating fire we’ve seen in recent memory,” Fire Chief Dennis Doan said.
The worst of it was on East Sweetwater Drive, where Lee, 40, and his wife, Mindy, 35, lived with their five children.
After evacuating Monday night, along with residents from more than 50 other homes, they returned the next day to find that their house had burned to the ground. A firefighter recovered the melted remnants of a college diploma and a scorched camping stove.
“Everything’s just gone,” said the Lees’ 14-year-old son, Spencer.
While other residents of the subdivision sifted through the ashes of their possessions and cried, the Lees cracked jokes.
“Looks like we’ve got to do school shopping all over again,” Christopher Lee said, offering a wry smile while standing on the foundation of his house. He said his family’s survival was the only thing that mattered.
Fire crews, insurance agents and police also assessed the damage on Tuesday and tried to determine whether the fire killed a Boise State University professor whose body was found in a damaged house.
Firefighters discovered the body of Mary Ellen Ryder, 56, a professor of English and linguistics who had been scheduled to teach her first class of the semester Tuesday.
Forensic tests on the remains have not been completed, and the cause of death has not been determined, Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. It was reported around 7 p.m. Monday in a vacant field of sagebrush and dry grasses and quickly spread to a nearby ridge, where it roared up to the line of homes.
The blaze was brought under control early Tuesday. Police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower said 17 officers and at least one firefighter were treated at hospitals for smoke inhalation and other injuries.
Meanwhile, a firefighting plane battling one of many lightning-caused fires in northwestern Colorado crashed Wednesday, injuring the pilot.
The single-engine air tanker crashed about 170 miles northwest of Denver near the town of Meeker.
Bureau of Land Management spokesman David Boyd said the pilot, who was not identified, was conscious and able to move. He was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Grand Junction. The cause of the crash was under investigation, Boyd said.
In Southern California, a brush fire next to Malibu Creek State Park burned at least 80 acres Tuesday, sending plumes of smoke wafting over the 101 Freeway.
Some residents voluntarily evacuated homes near Calabasas and Agoura Hills, about 35 miles west of Los Angeles, before the fire was contained by about 250 firefighters and six water-dropping helicopters.
In Wyoming, a fire that has charred nearly 87 square miles between Cody and Yellowstone National Park since July 26 forced the evacuation of a guest ranch. The fire was burning about a half-mile from the Elephant Head Lodge on Tuesday, and fire crews were on hand to protect the buildings.