Fire's Freakish Trail Leads To Pa. Couple Idaho Wants Them To Pay For Putting It Out.

Posted: May 02, 1993

SCRANTON — His first sign of trouble came when Frederick C. Howard looked in the side mirror and saw a ball of fire shoot from behind his motor home where he was towing the Honda Civic.

By the time he pulled his big tan rig over, the fire had spread from the car's blown right rear tire and was engulfing the car. Howard, 67, just had time to unhook the motor home and move it clear.

He and his wife, Jeanne, who had turned 70 the day before, then stood in the 90-degree heat of the Idaho summer and watched as their gray Honda was incinerated.

That was enough to ruin any vacation. But little did the Howards know that their barbecued car was only the beginning. For in the distance, around a bend in the road, a pall of smoke was rising from the drought-parched underbrush. Debris from the burning Honda apparently had ignited a fire that would soon scorch 6,258 acres - and require hundreds of firefighters, six aircraft, several bulldozers and four days to control.

And worse was to come. A few months after the retired couple returned to their home in a rural township east of here last July, they received a fat letter from the State of Idaho. Payment was demanded for fighting the fire. The bill?

In the end it would come to: $1,313,105.10.

"My God . . .," thought Jeanne Howard, when she read that first letter. Her husband, a World War II Marine Corps aviator, thought he was being made out a criminal. She has a bad back and high blood pressure; he has emphysema and has been treated for prostate cancer.

With insurance that covered about a quarter of the fee, they hoped for some compromise and wondered what to do.

But Idaho has been adamant. It wants the money and now has filed suit to collect. The Howards "willfully and negligently" started the fire, the lawsuit says. It says their car spewed sparks and burning rubber for seven miles, igniting the roadside grass along the way.

Year after year, Idaho officials say, the state shells out millions of

dollars to fight wildfires started by careless people. Like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other states, Idaho has a law that allows it to collect restitution for such expenses. But this is believed to be the largest bill that Idaho has ever tried to collect, officials said.

Whatever the cost, if those responsible don't pay, "the taxpayers of the state . . . will pay," said Idaho Deputy Attorney General Stephanie A. Balzarini. Depositions are scheduled for later this month. A trial has been set for this fall in Boise, the state capital.

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By the end of last July, Frederick and Jeanne Howard were nearing the end of one of their legendary, cross-country treks. Married 40 years. Retired. Daughter and son grown. This was their time to really enjoy life. They did so by hitting the road.

They'd take off from their home in the Poconos and travel for months. The 31-foot, second-hand motor home had everything: two TVs, a VCR, CB, bathroom, bedroom, stove and fridge.

It was "a ball," Frederick said, for two people who'd had their share of life's ups and downs: Jeanne, a tall woman with a merry laugh, had been widowed in her early 20s when her first husband, a college sweetheart and Marine Corps officer, was killed in battle in the South Pacific. Later, shortly after she married Frederick, her parents and his father were killed when the car they were in was hit by a drunken driver.

But that was years ago. Now, since Frederick's retirement in 1985 as a quality-control officer with the Department of the Air Force, they had time - and a love of travel.

Last July 17, the Howards had been visiting a friend outside Boise and were getting ready to leave for their son's home in Nebraska, they said in interviews last week. They simply had to take Route 55 north out of Boise, their friend said: "It was such a pretty road."

Indeed it was. The road snakes north along the Payette River through a valley with 1,200-foot hills on both sides, passing places like Bogus Basin, Jerusalem Valley and, further along, Horsethief Reservoir.

But there was no shoulder, and the Howards noticed that the grass was quite high along the road.

About 20 miles outside town, the Howards pulled over for lunch. Frederick, a lanky man with a short gray beard, got out a small sledgehammer, went around and banged all the tires to make sure they were sound. After lunch, they left.

"We were putzing along," Jeanne said - uphill, as they recall. Everything seemed fine. Oh, there were folks behind them flashing their headlights. But on the narrow road, it was difficult to pass the ponderous motor home. Frederick, who was driving, figured it was just the normal griping that motor- home drivers always get.

"You get on a hill," he said. "You see some guy back there blinking his light or giving you the finger out the window. . . . You get kind of used to people back there blinking lights at you. . . . You kind of look around. If you don't see anything in your mirrors or through your rear, you just keep going."

Now, he said, "everybody says that they were blinking their lights and all. Well, they probably were. But I didn't pay any attention to them because I couldn't see . . . where anything was wrong with my vehicle."

He did wonder why other drivers were keeping so far behind him.

Suddenly, Jeanne heard a noise or felt a bump - she's not sure which - and said: "What was that?" Then Frederick saw the fire. He pulled over as soon as he could. He got out and tried to douse the flames with two fire extinguishers he carries. Another motorist stopped with a large fire extinguisher. But it was too late.

As the couple watched the blaze consume the car, fire trucks began passing. They didn't stop. Then, another motorist came by: "Do you know you just caused a big fire back there?" No, Howard said, he didn't know. But when he looked to the south, he could see smoke rising in the distance.

The Howards got home from the trip about the end of July. They had little clue that they would be billed for putting out the forest fire. State officials had been kind and cordial as the couple got things straightened out and then left Idaho that evening. The only hint was when someone asked about their insurance coverage.

Months passed. In early October, Jeanne got a phone call. It was from a TV station in Boise, she recalls. Had the Howards received a bill for the fire?

"No," Jeanne replied, "we haven't gotten any bill." Well, the station said, "we understand you will be receiving one."

A few days later, on a Monday morning, they did. Jeanne sat on the couch and opened the letter. "There it was," she said. The letter noted that this was just an initial tabulation. The fee would actually double later.

But the opening breakdown was: $19,793.17 for personnel; $4,625.44 for operating supplies; $122,466.13 for equipment rental, and $545,711.07 for U.S. Forest Service assistance. Total: $692,595.81. The letter was signed ''cordially," by an Idaho forestry official.

The Howards were stunned. "What am I going to do?" Frederick said to

himself. "I could sell every bloody thing I got, and I couldn't pay that bill." Insurance policies covered only up to $350,000.

The couple has spent much of the intervening months fretting. They fear losing all they own. "They'll take everything we got," Frederick said.

He does not believe he was negligent. "I didn't feel that I willfully did it," he said. "And I didn't feel that I was negligent because I had a flat tire. . . . If I'd have seen that tire was flat, I'd have stopped. That's common sense. Unless I'm an idiot, I would stop."

They are also distressed that they must endure such controversy at this stage of their lives. "They're, like, criminalizing me - like I went out there and took a match and burnt their damn forest down," Frederick said.

"It just bugs me," he said. "Here you are: You're 67 years old. You're retired. Your income is set. You're doing pretty good. You're coasting along. You can enjoy life. And all of a sudden, boy, they come along here and . . . they can ruin . . . both our lives."

The waiting and worrying has not stopped their traveling. They recently returned from several months on the road in the motor home. And they have another trip set for September.

Of their present dilemma, Frederick said: "I just hope that it gets over with, so we know what we're going to have left and continue down the road."

That is the life they love, they say - out on the highway, seeing the sights and taking care, as the truckers joke about the possibility of overturning, to "always keep the greasy side down."

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