Rockport residents go home but other Utah wildfires smolder
Wanship • More than 70,000 acres of Utah rangeland, forests and high desert grasses still smoldered on Monday, but weary crews were near full containment of several lightning-sparked wildfires and Summit County evacuees were finally allowed to return home.
Tschana and Matt Schiller stood quietly Monday morning with a group of neighbors, the smell of smoke drifting down the Summit County hills they call home. The Schillers who have lived in the Wanship-area Rockport Estates neighborhood for about two years had been displaced by the destructive Rockport 5 Fire and camped nearby for nearly a week while fire crews beat the nearly 2,000-acre blaze out of the neighborhood.
Authorities on Monday morning lifted evacuation orders, which impacted about 250 homes across four neighborhoods, and the Schillers were among a small crowd of people who showed up just before 8 a.m. to get back into their neighborhood. As she waited, Tschana Schiller said she and her husband learned of the fire after checking Facebook while driving to Idaho. They abruptly turned around and came home, but couldn't get back into their house until Wednesday for a short, supervised visit.
Tschana Schiller said the blaze came within about 100 feet of her home but did not cause any damage. Matt Schiller added that just three weeks ago they had cleared the brush away from the building a concept known as creating "defensible space" and that seemed to have made a difference. Authorities over the Rockport 5 Fire have repeatedly stressed the importance of defensible space, saying it gives firefighters a much better chance of saving houses.
Dick Sandoval also showed up Monday to return home. Sandoval said he was at home when the blaze broke out and his wife was having a party. When they learned of the fire, they immediately fled and didn't have time to grab anything.
Sandoval said his home, which he built in 2009, is about a mile up the hilly neighborhood. The fire got "within about a football field," he said, but ultimately didn't cause any damage. He added that during a supervised visit last week the area "looked all right" and that it was great to finally return home.
It was a long week for many, for those who waited nervously to find out the fate of their homes and for those working nearly around the clock to save as many residences as they could.
Just minutes after lightning struck a telephone pole and sparked the wildfire on Aug. 13, Bryce Boyer arrived with a crew of firefighters and attacked the blaze.
Boyer, the incident commander for the Rockport 5 Fire, said he and his men charged into a ravine between the Rockport Estates and Rockport Ranches neighborhoods. They cut fire lines and spray water while another crew tried to flank the flames near the Rockport Reservoir, near the spot where the lightning struck.
But the blaze was too much. During a tour of the burn zone Monday, Boyer said 80-foot flames spewed embers into the air, sending the fire over his trucks and onto a nearby hillside. Eventually, the flames engulfed much of the ravine and sent a column of smoke into the sky that was visible for miles.
Boyer and his crews eventually gained the upper hand and by Monday morning had the fire 90 percent contained.
During the tour Monday, Boyer pointed to the hillsides to show the locations of the eight homes destroyed in the blaze. In one spot, a pile of gray rubble sat surrounded by blackened gamble oak. In another, a driveway led up to a completely empty lot. All around, the smell of smoke wafted in the breeze. The black dirt was as light and loose as flour.
Alan Lindsley, who manages the Rockport Estates neighborhood, also attended the tour. While looking out over the destruction he said that when he first heard about the fire, he raced toward it to see what was happening. The area often sees small fires from lightning strikes, he said, but as he saw the blaze he realized the residents weren't going to be able to handle it on their own.
"I was right in the middle of it," Lindsley said as he traced the fire's progress in the air with his finger.
The fire burned a strange pattern into the mountain. One side of the ravine was completely black, but the other side still had patches of greenery amidst the ashes. In some cases, the plants extended right up to the side of homes. Boyer explained that those homes, which lacked defensible space, were saved only with considerable effort from firefighting crews.
In other areas, the plants were tinted orange, which Boyer said happened when planes dropped fire retardant on them.
Rocky Mountain Power reported that electricity had been restored to all homes in the area as of Monday morning.
Lindsley said water isn't running in the area due to broken pipes, which he said were damaged when heavy fire trucks drove over them. He also said the fire got so hot that it melted water meters in the neighborhood.
He hopes to have water running again by Tuesday. In the meantime, residents will have to rely on massive residential water tanks, which are normally used in the winter when the neighborhood water is shut off to avoid freezing pipes.
Meanwhile in Tooele County, evacuation orders in the Patch Springs Fire also had been lifted Monday, as crews made significant progress in containing the fire. The 31,010-acre fire, the largest in Utah, continued to burn in high desert brush, grass and trees over an area roughly south, west and east of Deseret Peak, across portions of the Goshute Indian Reservation in Skull Valley, Big Creek Canyon and East Hickman Canyon.
The blaze has destroyed a historic lodge and several homes, forcing evacuations and, at one point over the weekend, cutting power to Dugway.
More than 300 firefighters had the Patch Springs blaze 71 percent contained. Fire Information Officer Denise Cobb said crews would begin demobilizing on Tuesday. Full containment was expected by Sunday.
Along the Utah-Idaho border, the 29,827-acre State Fire was nearly out. About 250 firefighters remained on the lines in northern Utah's Box Elder County and southern Idaho's Pocatello Valley, having finished Monday with 85 percent containment.
Some units were being demobilized on Monday, according to Incident Commander Bea Day.
The 2,864-acre Millville Fire in Cache County was 65 percent contained late Monday, with 180 firefighters struggling against occasionally gusty winds and rough terrain to keep the flames away from about 170 summer homes, cabins, outbuildings and other structures.
Evacuations ordered last week for portions of Blacksmith Fork Canyon, along with numerous trail closures, remained in effect Monday. Highway 101 through the canyon remained closed to all non-essential traffic.