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'It hit hard': Friend of fallen firefighter recounts memories

The US Forest Service has now determined the cause of the Moose Fire, which led to the deaths of two firefighters in July.

BOISE, Idaho — An unattended, unextinguished campfire; that is what the US Forest Service now believes caused the Moose Fire.

The Moose Fire has burned over 130,000 acres - more land than Boise, Meridian and Nampa combined. 

The fire also led to the deaths of two firefighters in July, when a helicopter crashed into the Salmon River. 

Idaho native Thomas Hayes and Jared Bird of Alaska were piloting the helicopter. Both men died in the crash.

"It really wasn't until about a week after the funeral that it really hit," Darrel Dodge, a friend of one of the victims said. "It hit hard."

Darrell Dodge knew Tom Hayes for 37 years, ever since they were in kindergarten. They grew up together in Orofino, and later fought fires alongside each other. 

Dodge said they were like brothers. 

"He was very driven...he always wanted to help any way he could, and he would," Dodge said. "He'd go out with me in the morning and cut firewood for the school projects, things like that...That was the type of person he was, he just wanted to go out and be helpful for whoever he could."

Hayes fell in love with helicopters, which led to him joining the army as a helicopter pilot. After his 20 years of service as a crew chief and a Chinook pilot, he began a career fighting fires. 

On July 19, Hayes texted Dodge a picture from the air of Beaverhead River. He told Dodge that he was going to fight the Moose Fire. 

Two days later, Dodge saw a message that there had been a crash.

"Unfortunately, I had a gut feeling because of the last text message he sent me showing the Beaverhead River," Dodge said. "I was like, 'well, it wouldn't be him, he's probably somewhere else.' And his dad called me about 20 minutes later and said Tom went down in a helicopter crash."

"About 10 minutes after I hung up with his dad, he called me back," Dodge said. "Told me the inevitable." 

"I had to know what happened to him. I had to know what happened to the helicopter, figure out some of this stuff," Dodge said. "But at the same time, be there for his dad. Because we're family."  

To help Tom's family, Dodge and two other veterans worked to organize the funeral service. Dodge set up a GoFundMe page that raised $27,000 to give Hayes the funeral he deserved. The leftover money was given to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation

"We did our best," Dodge said. "We did our best. We pulled a lot of strings." 

Two months later, Dodge says it hasn't gotten any easier.

"It's really hard when your son's middle name is your best friend's first name," Dodge said. "When you have children, you'll yell their middle name, and when I say it I remember Tom. Always. My son is a fanatic about Chinook helicopters, because that's what Tom flew. So you see him and you talk to him, and it just kills ya."

The US Forest Service is investigating the source of the fire. They believe the fire may have been left smoldering in a fire ring from the night before. They are asking for the public's help in identifying anyone who may have been present at the camping area on July 16.

"A lot of people think there should be a witch hunt after the person or people who didn't put the fire out," Dodge said. "You can have your witch hunt, that's not going to change anything. The person or people who were camping there, they know what happened. They see it, it's been national news. They've seen the consequences...they know. Will they ever come forward? Probably not." 

Dodge says the kids still ask about Tom. That's the kind of person Tom was, you'd meet him and never forget him.

"You can play the what-ifs all day, and it's not going to change anything," Dodge said. "But the one I can ask people is that when you go camping, make sure those campfires are out. Try to prevent this stuff. It just takes one careless act." 

On September 20, Crew Boss and veteran firefighter Gerardo Rincon suffered a medical emergency and passed away while on assignment at the Moose Fire.  

As of September 30, the Moose Fire is 75% contained. 

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