Fairview evacuated; one person dead in Sanpete County fire
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Indianola • Like a trick candle, once dormant areas of the Wood Hollow Fire the state's largest fire flared up all day long Tuesday, whipped by gusts of up to 50 mph, and spread into Utah County and further south in Sanpete County, forcing 1,100 Fairview residents from their homes.
Meanwhile, a search-and-rescue team found a body Tuesday in the fire's charred path, the first reported death from a Utah wildfire this year. The Sanpete County Sheriff's Office said it had not identified the victim.
Sanpete County Sheriff's spokesman Eric Zeeman said search-and-rescue teams combed over the evacuated areas in Indianola on Saturday to take inventory of who had and had not left their home. They thought they had everyone accounted for.
"We went through the area at least four times to make sure they reached everybody," Zeeman told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Since the death was unattended, police are investigating and have not released further details about gender or where the body was found.
As ash fell from clouds of smoke onto Fairview, sirens blared in the late Tuesday afternoon, alerting residents to the half-hour evacuation notice. They were offered shelter at North Sanpete High School in Mount Pleasant. The school is equipped to hold 300, but can be modified to fit 500.
The residents made their way out of town under an ominous amber-color sky.
Cris and Heather Hoopes and their two children were among the evacuees. The couple said they were shocked to hear of the evacuation. "I mean we knew [the fire] was close," Cris Hoopes said. "You can't live here and not see five fires on the hills and not expect it."
The two paced frantically around their home trying to figure out what to take with them. Photographs from the walls and food from the fridge made the cut. "We don't know what we're doing," the couple said with a nervous laugh.
The two local gas stations were closed, frustrating residents who wanted to gas up before leaving town.
Brook Cox and her four children evacuated their home after getting a text and a phone call with the news. Her husband, who has an excavation business, stayed behind to help fight the fire with a bulldozer. "I just brought pictures and that was it," Cox said. "I hope I got all of them. I was not very organized."
Peggy Kerksiek was on her way back to Fairview from Mount Pleasant, thinking the fire was out. Instead she was welcomed by the sound of evacuation sirens.
"We get there. We heard the sirens going off, and we knew we were in trouble," Kerksiek said.
Also, the town of Birdseye, to the north of the fire, and a nearby ranch for boys were evacuated.
Corbin Linde, business administrator for the Birdseye Residential Treatment Center, said the ranch evacuated about 3 p.m. The ranch is licensed to accept 12 boys.
"Everyone's safe," Linde said. "We've moved to an alternate location until we're allowed to go back."
Dorothy Harvey, spokeswoman for the federal and state management team overseeing the blaze, said the Fairview evacuation is precautionary. Aircraft dropping water and retardant are trying to stop the fire from reaching U.S. Highway 89, which runs through the town and was closed with the evacuation.
The Utah Highway Patrol also closed the highway north of the fire between Indianola and U.S. Highway 6.
"Firefighters are confident they can contain it to the highway," Harvey said.
Mount Baldy, east of Fountain Green, was in places a moonscape of burned rubble. But the desolation was interspersed with areas of live sagebrush, pinyon and juniper a mosaic pattern indicative of a fast-moving windblown fire.
Winds that sometimes gusted to 50 mph pushed the Wood Hollow Fire, Justin Brollier, a safety officer with the Great Basin Incident Management Team, told a group of news reporters Tuesday.
"Wind is like water," Brollier said, explaining the patchwork of dead black and living green; wind follows the path of least resistance and pushes the flames along with it.
On Tuesday, ground crews with Pulaskis a tool with an ax on one side and a trenching tool on the other were still trying to control the perimeter of the blaze by digging trenches. Crews have hiked three to six miles to reach hot spots. Bulldozers and other heavy equipment also were being used to cut fires lines, and helicopters were dumping water and retardant.
For containment, crews like to have a 60-foot swath of cold ash. But Brollier said Tuesday there was still an "uncontrolled fire edge."
He said "the biggest concerns" for fire authorities are wind and the possibility of dry lightning.
Harvey said about 400 firefighters, assisted by six water-bearing helicopters and eight air tankers bombing the flames with fire retardant, had the Wood Hollow Fire 15 percent contained. The fire had burned more than 38,900 acres by Tuesday.
"Our crews had some good luck overnight and secured some of the containment lines," Harvey said Tuesday.
As night came, flare-ups settled down and crews began a different attack on the fire while it was cooler.
A division supervisor on the north end of the fire in Fairview said crews on Tuesday night used bulldozers to dig lines to contain the fire. Supervisor Eric Platz said they will work to keep it away from Fairview and a turkey farm that flames threatened in the afternoon.
"Sometimes it seems like [the fire] is a little step ahead of us," Platz said. "But we have been doing good for the most part."
During the early afternoon, fierce winds blew a 50-foot wall of flame toward U.S. 89 and into Utah County on the north end of the fire. At the same time, flames roared near on the south end of the fire, prompting the Fairview evacuation.
Gov. Gary Herbert visited Fairview evacuees Tuesday night at the Mount Pleasant high school.
At a later news conference, he discussed firefighters' progress.
"Yesterday I thought they had it well in hand. It looked like that then, it looks like that now. I think we have adequate resources. I'm hopeful by tomorrow they'll be able to return people to their homes," he said.
The exact cause of the Wood Hollow Fire remained under investigation, she said, but it is believed to be human in origin. Among possible causes, according to Rocky Mountain Power officials, was the theft of copper grounding wire that may have caused power pole to short-circuit and spark the fire.
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Jeff Hymas said the theft was discovered Monday during an investigation. He did not know who is responsible.
The Sanpete County Sheriff's office could not immediately comment on if there had been any recent copper thefts reported.
Some Sanpete County residents were allowed to return home Tuesday. The Sanpete County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday had tweeted that evacuations were lifted east of U.S. Highway 89 and Fairview Ranchos. It wasn't clear how many residents or homes that area encompasses. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Sanpete County residents were evacuated Sunday.
Meanwhile, lightning on Tuesday morning sparked a new blaze, called the Seeley Fire, about a mile from the Sanpete County line. Some 15 smoke jumpers, or firefighters who parachute into the burn area, have been deployed, according to Harvey. Three aircraft being used to fight the Wood Hollow Fire were diverted to the Seeley Fire, she said.
The Seeley Fire in the Manti-La Sal National Forest forced 100 Girl Scouts to evacuate a camp at Miller's Flat Reservoir. The scouts went to a Mormon stake center in Fairview, according to a press release from the Forest Service. No structures are currently threatened and no roads have been closed. The blaze, estimated at 600 acres, is zero percent contained. More firefighters are on the way from New Mexico. Manti-La Sal National Forest spokeswoman Rosann Fillmore said the biggest problem is that Huntington Canyon is steep on both sides with a lot of dead spruce.
At the Church Camp Fire in Duchesne County, one building was destroyed and 83 more are believed in danger, said Louis Haynes, with the U.S. Forest Service. The fire, about 22 miles south of Duchesne, started Monday and had burned about 2,000 acres. That fire, too, was believed human-caused, and forced evacuation of homes and cabins east of U.S. Highway 191 along the Argyle Canyon Road. The blaze was being fought by more than 100 firefighters and a fleet of helicopters and air tankers.
Meantime, firefighters reported Tuesday that the 16,529-acre Grease Fire in Millard County, some four miles east of Delta, was 100 percent contained.
Yet another blaze, the Timpooneke Fire, was contained around 4:10 p.m. Tuesday after burning through the Alpine Loop. The fire reached an acre in size after being reported around 3 p.m. A Forest Service engine, Utah County engine and a helicopter from the Bureau of Land Management put an end to the flames.
Loyal Clark, media manager for U.S Forest Service, said the fire stemmed from a bonfire that was not properly put out just outside the developed area of the Altamont campground.
A "Red Flag" warning for extreme wildfire danger was in place for the entire state.
A surge of cooler air was expected to drop overnight, evening and early morning temperatures into the 40-60 degree range. But even that benefit was expected to be hit-and-miss, depending on the vagaries of the winds and geography. Not much help was expected in the case of the Wood Hollow Fire, the state's largest active wildfire.
Tribune reporters Michael Appelgate and Dana Ferguson contributed to this story.
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