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Rockport 5 fire is 50 percent contained, with 8 structures lost, down from 14

Published August 16, 2013 11:34 am

Summit County • Fewer homes burned than feared but the evacuation is extended.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Wanship • While the plumes of smoke that had dominated the Rockport 5 Fire were nowhere to be seen Thursday afternoon, fire officials wary of the smoldering blaze's less visible dangers extended the evacuation order for some of the 250 families displaced by the blaze, meaning they would have to spend a third night away from home.

Fire bosses said it would be at least Friday before evacuees could return to the Rockport Estates and Rockport Ranch neighborhoods. Evacuations had been lifted for the Bridge Hollow subdivision and the Promontory neighborhood in Park City.

But there would be more homes to go back to. Summit County District Fire Warden Bryce Boyer, the fire's incident commander, said eight homes had been destroyed by the blaze, correcting previous reports that 14 homes had burned down.

Boyer said ground crews and helicopters made significant progress on the fire, bringing containment to 60 percent for Thursday.

Crews were expected to continue fighting the fire for the next few days.

The fire near Rockport State Park in Summit County was triggered by a lightning strike Tuesday and has burned 1,920 acres. No injuries had been reported.

The fire is burning in oak brush, sage, grasses and the occasional stand of conifer and aspen trees.

In the charred Rockport Estates subdivision, there were still patches of green and intact homes only a few hundred feet away from where the flames had burned outbuildings to their foundations.

Five of the burned homes were in Rockport Estates; of those five, two were primary residences. Of the three burned homes in Rockport Ranch, one was a primary residence, Boyer said.

Fire officials were wary of propane tanks still standing among the smoldering landscape.

Dave Chec spent Wednesday in Brown Canyon, near Park City, trying to see his home through the smoke of the Rockport 5 Fire.

Chec had been working from home Tuesday afternoon when lightning struck nearby. He said the initial bolt didn't set the area ablaze, but soon an increasingly out of control fire was burning in the neighborhood. Chec grabbed his 5-year-old son, the "go boxes" he and his wife had packed early in the summer with family photos and ran to the car. As they went, Chec's son grabbed a stuffed penguin.

Chec and his son tried to escape the burning neighborhood through a back road in the nearby Promontory area. They had heard the gate was already locked, so they brought bolt cutters, but before they had a chance to use them, a friend called and said they had a chance to drive out the front road. They took it and escaped.

Chec said the fire didn't end up coming very close to his home Tuesday, but by Wednesday afternoon fierce winds had driven it closer. From Brown Canyon, Chec and a friend tried to see through the smoke. While he watched, Chec updated his wife, Audrey, via phone.

Audrey Chec said the experience was an emotional roller coaster. One minute her husband would say the fire had consumed the house, but the next the smoke cleared and he could make out the metal roof, which at one point appeared to have a swirling "firenado," or fire whirl, on top of it. Later, the home's propane tank burst into flames and kept burning until early Thursday morning.

Dave Chec said he felt panic while watching the fire surround his home, but then, before it even cleared, he experienced a "buzz."

"The fire was still around my house but I just had this weird calm go over me," he said.

The home survived. By Thursday afternoon, the family had gone on a brief, escorted trip back to the house — something officials were allowing on a case-by-case basis to residents only.

Audrey Chec said the family lost an early 1980s VW van and the fire came within inches of the home. Inside, everything was smoky and gray, but on the porch, a hammock still swung in the breeze, the Checs said, almost miraculously spared. Both above and below the house, the ground was charred, indicating that the blaze somehow jumped over the building without destroying it.

Meanwhile, in Cache County, the Millville Fire had been re-mapped from 3,200 to 3,150 acres. It was 20 percent contained by Thursday evening; evacuation orders were in place for cabins and homes in Blacksmith Fork Canyon and traffic in and around the fire area was restricted, said Fire Information Officer Larry Lucas.

While the Rockport 5 Fire was considered the state's most critical due to its continuing threat to hundreds of homes, it was not the largest. That goes to the State Fire, which had burned about 25,400 acres in Box Elder County and the Pocatello Valley across the state line in Idaho. Firefighters reached 60 percent containment of the State Fire, also started by lightning, as of Thursday afternoon.

The 14,000-acre Patch Springs Fire, sparked by lightning on Saturday, continued to burn about half a mile northwest of the Skull Valley hamlet of Terra and just east of the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation. Crews succeeded in keeping flames away from some two dozen homes, businesses and out-buildings, said Fire Information Officer Joanna Wilson, though they issued precautionary evacuations Thursday evening for the Willow Springs community, which is northeast of Terra. The fire was slowly inching into the higher country, where the about 20-home community of Willow Springs is, so the fire chief issued the evacuation just in case, Wilson said. The Red Cross set up an evacuation center in a LDS church on State Road 199 near Dugway to help any evacuees.

Also on Thursday, a new blaze dubbed the 222 Fire ignited in Juab County. The 100-acre fire was reported about 1 p.m. about 15 miles southwest of Eureka. It is not threatening structures.

Back in Summit County, though another day of temperatures in the upper-90s loomed, firefighters' hopes were buoyed by successful overnight efforts to set backfires near the Bridge Hollow and Promontory Ridge areas, creating a buffer zone between the main blaze and remaining homes. On Thursday morning, more than 200 firefighters worked with shovels, picks and bulldozers on the ground while helicopters scooped water from Rockport Reservoir and joined fire-retardant laden air tankers in bombarding the flames from above.

On Thursday morning, Tschana and Matt Schiller sat with binoculars in their Jeep at the edge of the road closure on State Road 32 in Wanship. The last time they saw their Rockport Estates home was Wednesday morning, after officials briefly let evacuated residents in to grab some of their belongings. They've been staying with family for the past two nights.

Matt Schiller said their home has so far been spared, but the landscape of their neighborhood was changed to the point that it was hard to recognize.

Schiller said he and his neighbors knew the risk of fire danger when they decided to live there, and they prepared for the worst by clearing brush taking other precautions. But that doesn't make the shock of it all any easier to absorb. It could have happened to any other community in the area just as easily as it happened to Rockport Estates, Schiller said.

"It's horrible because it's just so random," he said.

As the Rockport 5 Fire died down Thursday evening, the community response flared up. 

Jackie Vernon had been planning a Little League fundraising dinner Thursday, but in the aftermath of the blaze she changed it to benefit the Rasmussen family. Vernon works at the popular Rafter B Gas and Grub with Chrissy Rasmussen, who lost her home. Vernon described Rasmussen as "a rock," but said the fire had destroyed everything the family owned. 

In response, community members grilled hamburgers and hotdogs Thursday night and sold them. Vernon said she bought enough food for 200 and expected to sell it out. As people lined up — many of them dropping off checks and cash for far more than the price of the food — Vernon praised the community and said the response "was awesome."

Rachelle Mellor was among those who showed up. She brought a laundry basket full of clothing for the Rasmussen family after hearing that they had an 8-year-old daughter. Mellor doesn't know the family but said that helping people is what communities do during disasters.

"They're part of our community even if I don't know them," she explained.

Claus and Jacquie Nielsen also attended the fundraiser, even though they were evacuees themselves. Claus said he was working at home when the fire broke out and after seeing smoke thought he might go help extinguish the flames. 

"But it was running too quickly," he said.

Claus then grabbed his dogs and drove by the Rasmussen home, where Chrissy's 13-year-old son Caymen was home alone with with the family dog, Snickers. Caymen had considered escaping the fire on a motorcycle, but Nielsen picked him up instead and they evacuated. 

Like many in the community, Nielsen spent the 24 hours after the fire broke out wondering if his home — which is not his primary residence — still existed. Wednesday about 6 p.m., he finally heard that it had, but just barely.

"We're an island in the middle of a sea of black," he said.

Summit County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Bridge said deputies would escort residents to retrieve items "necessary to sustain life," but nothing less.

"We will not wait and use our resources for you to pack a bag or get photo albums or a computer," Bridge said.

On Wednesday a 74-year-old man was arrested when he ignored a sheriff's deputy's orders and drove over plastic barrier cones to his home in the Promontory subdivision. He was booked into jail for evading police, a third-degree felony.

Conditions remained extreme for wildfire danger with humidity low an temperatures high. The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning through Thursday evening for the northwest quarter of the state, running from the Idaho border south through the Wasatch Front and into the western desertlands.

Summit County Emergency Manager Kevin Callahan said people affected in any way by the fire could go to a multiagency support center at the Wanship LDS chapel, 3899 Old Lincoln Highway. People would be able to talk to Red Cross officials to assess compensation for lost or damaged property, and there would also be counseling services available to anyone who needs it.

Callahan said the center would be open between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Callahan said that insurance companies would not be available and urged people who lost any possessions in the fire to contact their insurance providers on their own.

remims@sltrib.com

Twitter: @remims