BOISE, Idaho— The air was still thick with the smell of smoke when fire crews allowed Christopher Lee and his wife to return to their charred neighborhood and collect their belongings — or what was left of them.
The couple told a police officer their address, only to realize several homes no longer bore numbers.
A fatal wildfire tore through a Boise subdivision on Monday night, fueled by sagebrush and winds that gusted as high as 50 mph. The body of an English professor was found Tuesday in one of the nearly 20 homes destroyed or damaged during the blaze.
Boise Assistant Fire Marshal Mark Senteno toured the charred neighborhood, counting driveways where homes had been reduced to darkened rubble, and said 10 homes were destroyed.
“This has been the most devastating fire we’ve seen in recent memory,” Fire Chief Dennis Doan said.
The worst of it was on East Sweetwater Drive, where Lee, 40, and his wife, Mindy, 35, lived with their five children in a tan house protected by a wrought iron fence.
They returned Tuesday to find their home was gone, all 3,400 square feet of it.
“Everything’s just gone,” said the Lees’ 14-year-old son, Spencer.
A firefighter recovered the melted remnants of Lee’s college diploma from the University of London. The homeowner later came across a scorched camping stove.
“I’ve been looking for that,” Lee said.
But where others sifted through the ashes of their possessions and bawled, the Lee family cracked jokes. Lee said his family survived and that was the only thing that really mattered.
“Looks like we’ve got to do school shopping all over again,” he said, offering a wry smile while standing on the foundation of his house.
Fire crews, insurance agents and police also assessed the damage on Tuesday and tried to determine whether it was the fire that killed a Boise State University professor whose body was found in one house.
Firefighters discovered the body of Mary Ellen Ryder, 56, a professor of English and linguistics. Ryder was scheduled to teach her first class of the semester Tuesday.
Forensic tests on the remains were not completed on Tuesday, and the cause of death has not been determined, Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg said.
Police did not confirm whether Ryder was the same woman who was reported missing by relatives after the fire quickly spread from a vacant field of sagebrush and dry grasses to a nearby ridge, where it roared up to the line of homes.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
The blaze was brought under control early Tuesday, and residents from the more than 50 homes evacuated were allowed to return after spending the night at a nearby church or elementary school.
Duane and Lynn Hughes live down the street from the homes that were destroyed and said they watched as the fire spread from the field and up a slope toward their house. Duane Hughes scooped buckets of water from their pool in an attempt to ward off the blaze.
“I thought we lost our house,” said Lynn Hughes, 40, as she swept up debris from her neighbor’s yard and called the wildfire a “catastrophe.”
Police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower said 17 officers and at least one firefighter were treated at hospitals for smoke inhalation and other injuries.