Wanship • Just as families began returning to their Summit Valley homes and firefighters were optimistic they finally had a handle on the 2,000-acre Rockport 5 Fire that consumed eight homes, the 14,000-acre fire in Skull Valley took a windblown turn that destroyed about 10 homes in the community of Willow Springs.
The lightning-sparked Rockport 5 Fire that quickly tore through the mountainside homes near the Rockport Reservoir Tuesday afternoon diverted resources from blazes such as the Patch Springs Fire south of the Stansbury Mountains. That inferno, also started by lightning, began Aug. 10, but hadn't destroyed any homes or structures as it neared the hamlet of Terra.
However, on Thursday, the Tooele County Sheriff ordered evacuations of the Willow Springs community, and on Friday about 10 manufactured homes there were destroyed as strong southern winds forced the fire out of control and managed to push it over State Highway 199, which previously had acted as an anchor point, said Joanna Wilson, Bureau of Land Management West Desert District spokeswoman. Three firefighters suffered from dehydration, though they have recovered, Wilson said.
As the growing fire, which was burning through brush, grass and juniper, came within a mile of the tiny town of Terra, the Tooele County sheriff ordered evacuations there and at the Clover Springs Campground off Highway 199. The fire also forced the closure of Highway 199 from mile post 6 to the intersection with State Highway 196, also called Skull Valley Road. The Utah Red Cross announced that it would begin setting up an evacuation center at Grantsville High School. Wilson said air support from the Rockport 5 Fire near the Summit County town of Wanship was brought in Friday to help, in addition to the two helicopters and two air tankers already deployed.
A number of firefighters also have been diverted from Wanship to Skull Valley, said Jennifer Hansen of the Northern Utah Interagency Fire Center, bringing Wanship's numbers down from 160 to 109. About 125 families were able to return home to the Bridge Hollow and Promontory neighborhoods late Thursday. However, 110 homes in the Rockport Ranch and Rockport Estate subdivisions were still under evacuation orders, meaning the remaining firefighters most of whom are volunteer will need to stay in place to continue battling the 2,000-acre fire, which was still only 60 percent contained.
Summit County District Fire Warden Bryce Boyer said it was unlikely those would be lifted before Monday evening. In addition to flare-ups and hot spots within the subdivisions, electrical services remained out and safety inspections of residential propane tanks were being planned.
The official count of homes destroyed had been nearly halved from 14 to just eight. Authorities said there had been confusion earlier in differentiating between residences and some trailers and outbuildings lost to the blaze.
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. The fire was burning in oak brush, sage, grass, conifer and aspen trees.
The federal government approved $500,000 Friday for Emergency Watershed Protection for the area damaged by the Rockport 5 Fire that will include slope reseeding, protecting bridges and roads and building debris basins.
Saturday may bring a new threat to the Wanship area thunderstorms could mean debris flow and flooding. If a half inch or more of rain falls along the burn scars, debris flows could block roads and firefighter access to battle the blaze, said Kevin Callahan, Summit County emergency manager.
Of course, the storm, which is forecasted to be on the northern edge of the burn zone, could miss the area entirely and not cause any problems, he said.
On the west side of the valley, Saturday brings with it safety concerns for hunters as they move into the Stansbury Mountains where the archery hunt opens this weekend. Big Hollow Canyon is closed, though East Hickman Canyon is open, but there is fire activity in that area, Wilson said.
"We're just asking people to please be careful. â¦ Just keep your distance," she said.
Reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this story.
View Fires burning in Utah as of Aug. 16, 2013 in a larger map