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For the week of Apr. 12 through Apr. 18, 2000

Yurt fire ruled arson

Investigators locate fire’s ignition points; no suspects yet

a12yurtmap.jpg (10548 bytes)
illustration by
Gavin McNeil



"It gives you a track like fingerprints."

-Arson investigator Donald Dillard on the use of gasoline to spark fires

Express Staff Writer

A fire that destroyed two yurts in the Boulder Mountains on April 2 was ignited intentionally, investigators have concluded.

That determination was reached in a report released to local police agencies yesterday by the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s office in Boise.

The yurts were located one and one-half miles up Boulder Creek, about 10 miles north of Ketchum.

Owned by Sun Valley Trekking Co., the yurts were connected by a walkway to create one structure. The company’s co-owner, Bob Jonas, placed their value at about $20,000.

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said during a press conference Monday that investigators had ruled the fire constituted an arson case because investigators found two points of ignition.

In an interview yesterday, assistant state fire marshal Donald Dillard said he spent four to five hours at the site on Monday, April 3, and had determined how the fire was started. He would not elaborate.

Officials investigate the sceneThe arson, it seems, couldn’t come at a worse time. Last fall, the SNRA challenged users to map out motorized and non-motorized zones; otherwise, the federal agency says it would do it for them. Above, county, state and federal officials study the scene on Monday, April 3. (Courtesy photo)

Thus far, Dillard said, no material recovered from the fire scene has been forwarded to the state forensic lab in Pocatello. Some items from the scene, however, were forwarded to Femling.

Dillard, who has been an arson investigator since 1982, said the initial investigation was difficult because the site wasn’t secured when he arrived.

Dillard’s three-page, single-spaced arson report was forwarded to the sheriff’s office Tuesday morning.

Determining how the fire occurred, Dillard said, "was not really difficult."

Without commenting specifically on the nature of the fire’s accelerant, Dillard said "only a crazy person" uses gasoline because of the ability of skilled forensic investigators to trace the fuel.

"It gives you a track like fingerprints," he said.

Yurt co-owner Jonas said six cans of camp-stove fuel were missing from the yurts.

Now that the fire has been ruled an arson, it will be the job of the sheriff’s office to solve it. Acknowledging that "arson is one of the more difficult crimes to solve," Femling said he is hoping to obtain information from the public.

Up to $4,500 in reward money has been posted for information helping in the investigation. The reward consists of up to $2,500 from the U.S. Forest Service, depending on the quality of information; $1,000 from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association; and $1,000 from the local Nordic and Backcountry Skiers Alliance.

The fire appears to have started shortly before 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 2.

In an interview, Sun Valley resident Chuck Bohlke said he was skiing at about that time north of Murphy’s bridge, on the west side of Highway 75, when he heard an explosion in the area of the yurts. He said he looked in that direction and saw black smoke.

"It was pretty loud," Bohlke said. "Certainly loud enough to get my attention. The smoke was pretty intense."

Bohlke said he went to a telephone and called the sheriff’s office. Femling said at the press conference that his deputies were busy at the time and did not get to the scene that evening.

The charred site was discovered Monday morning by Ketchum skier Carl Praeger, who contacted the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters.

Femling said the noise heard by Bohlke was most likely caused by an exploding fire extinguisher in one of the yurts.

Femling said members of a group of 12 people who spent Saturday night in the yurts were not being viewed as suspects. He said that due to heavy use of the yurts, ski, foot and snowmobile tracks there are not of much use in the investigation.

Snowmobile tracks violating a non-motorized zone around the arson site
Snowmobile tracks 60 feet south of the yurts cut through a no-motorized-vehicles courtesy zone around the encampment. (Express Photo by David N. Seelig)

Femling said he hopes people will "take an active interest in assisting with this investigation." He said people can contribute money to increase the reward fund.

Anyone with information or a reward contribution is asked to call the sheriff’s office at 788-5555.


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