A Pennsylvania couple say they were not to blame for a forest fire they caused on the Payette River in Idaho last July and refuse to pay the $1 million bill the state is charging for fire suppression.
Fredrick and Jeanne Howard of Lake Ariel, Pa., were featured on "Dateline NBC" program on Tuesday night.But Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus calls into question the reporting on the story, saying he understands the news team handed a script to Jeanne Howard to say while the cameras were rolling.
The Howards were towing a Honda Civic car behind their motor home last July in the middle of a long drought.
"A friend mentioned the way on Route (Idaho Highway) 55 was especially pretty," Jeanne Howard said. It was hot and the Howards had the windows rolled up and air conditioner on.
A witness behind the retired couple said Fred Howard took a corner too tight in the narrow river canyon. A right rear tire on the Honda blew, causing sparks as the bare wheel scraped along.
The Howards said they did not see any flames or smoke and did not take notice of people trying to alert them. They finally stopped, unhooked the Honda and watched it burn.
After driving 2,000 miles on their vacation trip, "I guess I was a little hardened to blinking lights," he said. He finally noticed a "ball of flame like a Roman candle" and stopped.
The small fires caused along the road shoulder finally burned 6,200 acres of private, state and federal lands. The state incurred $1 million in costs to stop it and sued the Howards for recompense.
"I feel terrible about what I did," Fred Howard said. "I don't feel I was negligent. I could see nothing wrong with the car."
"It's too big to even comprehend," Jeanne Howard said. "How in the world I'd pay it, I have no idea."
The Idaho State Police later checked and agreed Howard would have been unable to see the small car in the motor home mirrors, and did not ticket him.
Before the Howards, the most the state has recovered from private citizens who caused fires was $82,000. The Dateline report said the state refused the offer of $355,000 from the family's insurance carrier.
A trial has been set for mid-October. The television show also said the Howards are refusing the state's request for information about their assets.
But Andrus said he dislikes the way NBC handled the story. He said he understood the reporters gave Jeanne Howard a script to read, among other questions.
NBC officials deny any script was involved. They said they offered to interview the governor, but he refused.