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Brian Head fire pushes out 750 residents and visitors

First Published      Last Updated Jun 20 2017 12:34 pm

Southern Utah fire » As the outlook improves, residents and visitors recount fear before the march of flames that destroyed one house in a small resort town.

Brian Head Resort • Clayton Calloway was leaving Brian Head at about noon Saturday, driving north on State Route 143, when he came upon a small fire in forest and brush near the roadway. It didn't appear overly serious; a few town firefighters were already on the scene.

"I thought, 'Man, they got this,' " Calloway recalled Sunday.

But the small brush fire quickly transformed into an inferno, racing uphill toward hundreds of high-end homes in the southern Utah resort town. By the time Calloway flipped around and drove back to Brian Head, just a mile away, an evacuation order for part of the community had been issued.

The evacuation area included Apple Annie's Country Store, which Calloway owns with his wife. So the couple hustled to a friend's house a safe distance away and watched the blaze advance. Then the wind picked up, and by 2:30 p.m., all of Brian Head — about 750 residents and visitors — had been placed under immediate evacuation orders.

"You could just see this wall of smoke and fire getting closer and closer," said Calloway, 57, who serves on the Brian Head Town Council. "You get this sick feeling like, 'This is it. This is going to happen.' "

Some residents and town officials figured the whole town might be lost in the uncertain moments after the blaze broke out. Brian Head includes a few stores and hotels, and about 1,200 homes and cabins. It has about 100 full-time residents.

Yet, as of Sunday evening, just one home had been destroyed; three others were damaged. Flames burned within feet of numerous others. Officials said Monday morning that 969 acres had burned and that the blaze remained totally uncontained. There were no injuries reported. State Route 143 between Parowan and Brian Head remained closed. There was no timeline on when residents will be able to return to their homes.

But several sides of the fire appeared to be partially controlled. The blaze had pushed northeast, and a handful of spot fires were visible in the forested areas closest to homes.

At least 115 firefighters were on the ground Sunday, surrounding structures and digging fire lines on the perimeter. About a dozen helicopters and air tankers dropped thousands of gallons of water and retardant throughout the day.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized federal funds Sunday to help Utah pay for battling the fire, which is burning on state and private land and is threatening homes, business and watershed areas.

Authorities said the fire was man made, though they declined to provide additional details citing an active investigation.

Heather Lewis and her brother Aaron Misner were hiking toward Brian Head Peak on Saturday when they saw the smoke.

They had come from their homes in Boulder City, Nev., with Lewis' husband and Misner's girlfriend for a weekend at the family cabin, intent on hikes, a zip line ride and other summer adventures.

But when it became clear that the fire was continuing to grow, Lewis said the group made an about-face on the trail and headed down the mountain.

"That was our second trip up there to the cabin our parents bought recently," Lewis, 30, said in a Sunday phone call from her home in Nevada. "We'll have to replan a vacation once this all gets straightened out."

"A firefighter told us that somebody was burning debris," Misner added," and it just got out of hand."

High temperatures and low humidity, along with a steady afternoon wind from the north — a departure from the normal southerly pattern — had initially increased Sunday's firefighting challenge, said Bret Howser, Brian Head's town manager, because it was blowing the fire back toward town.

But by Sunday evening, the fire was largely burning north, he said, on Dixie National Forest lands and away from structures.

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