Investigators looking at propane-fueled fireplace as potential cause of deadly cabin fire

Posted at 4:16 PM, Jul 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-05 10:10:43-04

Valley County officials are still investigating a structure fire near Tamarack Resort that left two adults and two children dead. It happened shortly after 10:00 Friday night.

State Fire Marshal Knute Sandahl says investigators are looking closely at the propane-fueled fireplace as a potential source of an explosion that may have caused the house to quickly erupt into flames. It will be at least two weeks before investigators can determine a definitive cause.

"According to witness statements and a statement made by the survivor, we strongly suspect there was a propane explosion," Sandahl said.

The fireplace in question was located in a common living room in the home in close proximity to where the victims were at the time. "The information we've received is that the survivor was in the same room as the others at the time of the explosion," Sandahl said. 

The victims are Boise residents, who traveled to Donnelly for the holiday weekend. All adults involved are members of the Idaho National Guard.

46-year-old Lieutenant Colonel William "Mitch" Smith of Boise, was transported to St. Luke’s McCall Hospital and treated and released.

According to Smith’s statement at the time of the fire, he indicated there could be possibly four victims still in the residence. The State Fire Marshal located the four victims inside, including Smith's wife, 34-year-old Master Sergeant Erin Smith, their seven-year-old daughter Autumn, Lieutenant Colonel James Harper III, and his son, 14-year-old James "JJ" Harper IV.

All of the victims have been recovered and turned over to the Valley County Coroner’s Office. Autopsies were performed Monday.

Sandahl, along with the general manager of Tamarack Resort, is expressing deep gratitude to the first responders who were called to the scene, saying they did "an absolutely wonderful job, despite the tragedy."

Family members of Jim and "JJ" Harper say, “We are devastated at the loss of our amazing son JJ Harper and his father, our friend Jim.  JJ’s infectious smile, his hearty laugh, his big heart, and his leadership on the football field will be missed by everyone. JJ and Jim were apart for 2 deployments overseas in JJ’s short life and they lived every minute of every day to make the time they had together count."

There will be a memorial hike to Table Rock to honor JJ on Saturday July 15th at 1pm, and a service will be announced at a future date. 

The Idaho National Guard has issued the following statement:

"It is with great sadness that our thoughts and prayers go out to the families, friends and loved ones of those lost in this horrible accident." - Idaho National Guard Commanding General Major General Gary L Sayler