Fate of fire-damaged N. Idaho trestle in jeopardy

Fate of fire-damaged N. Idaho trestle in jeopardy
In this photo provided by U.S. Forest Service, smoke billows up the draw as a railroad trestle, ignited by a recent wildfire in Winchester Canyon, Idaho on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service)
LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — The owner of the Bountiful Grain and Craig Mountain Railroad hopes a trestle destroyed by a wildfire in Winchester Canyon can be rebuilt, but he said it will be difficult.

The trestle, one of several that stretches across impossibly steep draws as the rails climb from Spalding to the Camas Prairie, was burned by the 75-acre Culdesac Fire Friday.

"I have always said I wanted to be back on the prairie and, to be honest with you, I think I could have," Mike Williams said from his Richmond, Mo., office. "But this is definitely going to be a stumbling block for me."

The line has not provided service through the canyon and up to the grain fields of the prairie for several years. Williams said repairs were made to a key bridge along the route in 2008 in order to bring the line back to life. Then the economy derailed and those plans were shelved. But in the back of his mind Williams never gave up hope that trains would once again be a key transportation link for prairie farmers.

"Every time I get up there I just keep telling myself this railroad needs to stay here forever, if for nothing else than the historic aspect and the accomplishment as an engineering feat."

There are more than 40 wooden trestles, some of them hundreds of feet high, between Spalding and Cottonwood. They are famous among train and railroad fans, some of whom like to visit the route in speeder cars. Williams described traveling the line as breathtaking.

"I've been over the entire Burlington Northern system and I've never seen anything as beautiful in my life," he said.

A fire that started near the highway Friday afternoon raced up the steep slopes of the canyon and into a draw spanned by the trestle. The flames readily climbed and consumed the creosote soaked wooden structure.

"We dropped a lot of water on it with helicopter buckets but once that creosote catches on fire there is no hope," said Don Wagner of the Idaho Department of Lands.

The helicopter was able to keep flames away from another trestle just a few hundred yards away but the burned one is a total loss.

"It's gone. There is nothing there," Wagner said.

Williams said he became sick to his stomach Friday after hearing the trestle was ablaze and comforted only small bit when he learned it was not the famous curved trestle visible from the highway and was prominently featured in the Charles Bronson film "Breakheart Pass."

"When one of my employees told me it wasn't Halfmoon it made me feel a little better," he said.

The fact the trestle, which was not insured, was straight and not curved bolsters the chances of it being rebuilt. Williams who also owns Railroad Materials Salvage Inc. said he has more than enough timbers and other materials to rebuild the structure but the cost of labor could be prohibitive.

He plans to tour the burned trestle that is not visible from the highway, today.

"We just have to kind of look at it and see how much that is going to cost to see if it is something we will attempt or not."

The fire is contained and crews have mopped up the outer 200 feet of its parameter.

"There is still a little heat in the interior but nowhere near the edge," Wagner said. "The public could still see some smoke and a maybe a little flame."

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com