Printed on: October 04, 2012

Corn maze goes up in smoke

By Ruth Brown

When Preston Walker closed his Lost Monster Straw Maze on Tuesday night, he did a final walk-through -- just as he does every night -- making sure no customers were left inside.

Walker then turned off the lights and shut down the generators.

At about 10:30 p.m., some 30 minutes after Walker left the maze -- located on McNeil Drive a block away from Tautphaus Park -- it caught fire.

"I'm 99 percent sure someone did it maliciously because there was no source of heat at all to start the fire," Walker said. "In my mind, there's no doubt someone did this."

Idaho Falls Fire Department officials have not determined the fire's cause.

Smoke from the blaze drifted across much of the city throughout the day Wednesday.

When Ken Brown went to check on his business -- Eagle Rock Nursery at 1850 Rollandet Ave. -- around midnight, he said there was so much smoke that he barely could see the trees at nearby Rose Hill Cemetery. Later Wednesday, when Brown went to work, he said it was hard to breathe inside the nursery building, located several blocks from the maze.

"There was a massive amount of smoke," Brown said.

Development Workshop Inc. also has three buildings located near the maze.

CEO Mike O'Bleness said the organization changed its scheduling to reduce the time clients spent outside Wednesday.

"Until about 10 a.m., the smoke was pretty thick," O'Bleness said. "... We had a few people who have respiratory issues leave in the morning but they returned in the afternoon."

The maze, constructed of 1,100 1-ton straw bales, continued billowing smoke into the afternoon.

An IFFD news release estimated damage at $100,000. The bales, a backhoe and other equipment were burned.

No one was injured.

Brown said his greenhouse floor was covered in ashes. He's also concerned the ash will cause issues for the surrounding homes and businesses.

The cost of professional cleaning is not covered by his insurance, Brown said.

He said he was "disheartened" by the fire and "extremely surprised" that the city allowed the maze to be built "in the middle of a community."

Idaho Falls City Clerk Rose Anderson said the maze was not required to have a city business license because it doesn't fit the criteria of an interim business.

Although Walker wasn't sure he would rebuild the maze, he said he hopes justice will be served to the person or persons responsible for the fire.