Summit County fire burns homes, forces evacuation
Coalville • Andy Varner was fishing in the Rockport Reservoir on Tuesday afternoon with a friend when he happened to look at shore the same time a bolt of lightning slammed into a telephone pole about 600 yards away.
"It was like shrapnel," he said of the 2 p.m. strike, which sprayed sparks into the grass and blew the pole apart.
He watched as the winds pushed the blaze across tinder-dry grass and toward a nearby neighborhood.
Within hours of that strike, the Rockport 5 Fire had destroyed 12 homes, said Gov. Gary Herbert at an evening news conference in Wanship. Several cars and boats also burned, he said.
The blaze also scorched 4,000 acres, caused thousands to lose power and displaced hundreds of people from their homes. It continued to burn uncontrolled late Tuesday night.
Evacuations were ordered for about 300 homes sitting near the fire: Rockport Estates, which runs adjacent to State Road 32 near the small towns of Coalville and Wanship, the Bridgehollow subdivision; and also the neighborhood of Promontory in the Park City area, which is just east of Highway 40.
"There are 250 homes that are actively, imminently threatened," said Steve Rutter, northeast area fire management officer.
Nobody has been injured in the blaze, he said.
"We've done good but we still have a long way to go," he said.
The Rockport 5 Fire is the most-damaging fire of what has thus far been a mild year for wildfires in Utah.
At times, the fire was moving at 50 to 80 feet per minute, Rutter said.
City and county fire departments from across Summit County rushed to spray water on the blaze and defend houses Tuesday afternoon. By the evening, aircraft were dropping water and fire retardant.
About 175 people fought the blaze Tuesday; on Wednesday, personnel numbers will climb to about 250, Herbert said. The National Guard has been authorized to deploy two black hawk helicopters to help firefighters on Wednesday.
Brittney Miller, 29, sat by her phone in the dim light of the North Summit Middle School cafeteria with her toddler son, Canyon, in her lap, waiting to hear word about her home and her husband, a volunteer firefighter battling the blaze.
She had not heard the fate of her house on Aspen Road in Rockport Estates, but she already knew some of her neighbors had lost their homes.
"I'm shaken," she said.
She, her husband and their three children were backpacking in the Uinta Mountains and were on their way home when they learned about the fire. Miller dropped her husband off to get to work while she took her three children to the Red Cross evacuation center at North Summit Middle School, 64 S. 100 East in Coalville.
A second evacuation center at an LDS church at 510 Silver Summit Parkway in Park City was also operating Tuesday night.
The evacuations were expected to last at least 24 hours.
While initially without power, the evacuation center had food, water and showers to use while Miller waited for word.
More than 1,600 people were without power Tuesday evening in Hoytsville, Wanship and Coalville, Rocky Mountain Power spokesman David Eskelsen reported. Crews had restored most of the power by about 6:40 p.m.
Eskelsen said the blaze forced the power company to shut down the transmission line that feeds the three towns in an effort to prevent an uncontrolled outage.
"We need to make sure the line is OK before we put it back in service," Eskelsen said, noting crews were still waiting to get into the fire area to evaluate damage and restore power to a smaller number of customers in the Wanship area. "Until we can really evaluate whether there's any damage, we really won't know what we're dealing with."
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency pledged to pay 75 percent of the costs associated with fighting the Rockport 5 Fire, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.
About 4:30 p.m., Russ Moseley was still in his Rockport home, fighting the fire with a garden hose. In a phone conversation, Moseley said he could feel the heat on his face and was watching flames engulf the home just below his. The fire was about 150 feet from his home, he added.
"It's like being in Vietnam," Moseley said.
Moseley has lived in the area for 13 years and said in that time he has never seen anything comparable. He said he had seen several propane tanks blow up Tuesday afternoon and had been instructed by firefighters to spray his property with water to keep it cool.
He said he wasn't coming down out of the fire zone, even if the flames got closer to his home.
"Hell no," he said of leaving his home. "This is everything I got."
Caymen Rasmussen, 13, was able to flee as flames started moving toward his house in the north end of Rockport Estates.
Home alone his mom, Chrissy, and his sister were in Coalville at the time family friends and neighbors were able to help get him out before flames destroyed the family home. Chrissy Rasmussen said she's just was grateful she didn't lose everything.
"I still have my family," she said, after reuniting with her son at a Red Cross evacuation center at a Wanship church.
The fire burned right up to Pat Pike's driveway, and no further, as far as he knows.
"I used to get slack for pulling the sagebrush out," Pike said. "I don't think [I'll hear that] anymore."
He's owned his house in Rock Port Estates for seven years and he has been pulling the brush and mowing the grass ever since, specifically preparing for a fire. One of his neighbors even asked him to do that for his house, too.
Pike was at home when he saw the smoke billowing over the mountain. He started packing the essentials and prepared to high-tail it in his truck when he got the call about a mandatory evacuation 15 minutes later.
Another neighbor, who has a house closer to the growing fire but was away from home, called Pike and asked him if he could get his dogs out from the garage. Pike rescued the dogs, and got a much better view of the fire on the way.
"What shocked me was that both side of the canyon were black [already]," he said. "The flames moved so fast, it was incredible."
After watching the strike, Varner and his friend called 911 and about 11 minutes later crews arrived, he said. Initially, the fire was small, burning 20 acres, but then the wind shifted and it started burning out of control, Varner said.
As Varner and his friend headed to the shore, they began calling neighbors.
Once on dry land, they scrambled to nearby homes, rescuing dogs and setting horses free. Then they fled, and Varner said they barely made it out before the roads were closed.
Among the pets Varner rescued was Wendy and Mike Gray's Blue Heeler. The couple was at work Tuesday and came rushing back to the area when Varner called them. But by the time they arrived, they were locked out of their neighborhood. Wendy said she was just glad she had friends looking out for her.
By 6:30 p.m. the Grays were waiting at a nearby church parking lot under a light rain of ash. Friends were calling with offers to put them up for the night.
"We really want to go home," Wendy said, squinting at the fire.
Twitter @sltrib The Riverside Campground at Rockport State Park has been closed until further notice. The reservoir is closed to boating so firefighting helicopters can fill water buckets.Â Â All other areas of the park remain open at this time.
Displaced residents can call 435-336-3500 or 435-615-3500 to find out when Wednesday they will be allowed to return home.
State Fire • The 22,000-acre, lightning-sparked blaze is 50 percent contained. About 250 firefighters, aided by helicopters and air tankers are fighting the fire on the Utah-Idaho state line, officials reported. On Tuesday, crews had managed to turn back the fire from the tiny town of Samaria, Idaho.
Millville Fire • The 2,250-acre fire was 20 percent contained Tuesday night. The blaze was burning east of the Cache County town of Hyrum and was being battled by 150 firefighters and several helicopters and air tankers, said Fire Information Officer Larry Lucas.
Patch Springs Fire • the 10,670-acre fire burning in Tooele County's Skull Valley, just east of the Goshute Indian Reservation, was 15 percent contained Tuesday night.
Tank Fire • The 100-acre fire burning north of Highway 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon was 40 percent contained Tuesday night. Jennifer McBride of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest said the fire was not threatening any structures.
Bob Mims and Erin Alberty