South Weber • Firefighters, having held flames at bay overnight, resumed their attack on the 619-acre Uintah Fire Wednesday. Investigators now believe the blaze was human-caused.
The wind-driven fire, which began early Tuesday morning in tinder-dry brush and grass at the mouth of Weber Canyon, forced evacuations of nearly 1,000 residents as it burned five homes and a garage. No injuries were reported.
Fire Information Officer Kim Osborn said Wednesday that despite overnight gusts, the fire had not grown overnight. Fifteen crews — roughly 300 firefighters — were joined by water-bearing helicopters and an air tanker laden with fire retardant chemicals Wednesday morning.
As for the cause of the fire, which began Wednesday 5 percent contained, investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Layton Fire Department early on had looked closely at the area around a hillside power station, where workers reported seeing sparks on Tuesday.
However, as Wednesday morning broke, the Interagency Fire Center declared the fire was human-caused, and asked that anyone in the area of the South Weber Park & Ride lot at about 7 to 7:30 a.m., when the blaze ignited, to contact authorities. The IAFC specifically asked for any photos or video taken during that time.
Several hundred people reportedly remained evacuated Wednesday morning, waiting for word from authorities on when they could return.
That may been sooner than later. At dawn Wednesday, as crews shored up and extended containment lines and sought out remaining hot spots, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office reopened sections of Interstates 89 and 84 that had been closed at the height of the fire.
Tuesday morning, gusty downslope winds pushed the blaze, preventing tankers and helicopters from safely fighting the fire for several hours. Flames quickly spread through the town of Uintah and pockets of South Weber, as well as the unincorporated subdivision of Uintah Highlands. Several homes were among the structures destroyed, though officials did not have a precise tally Tuesday night. No injuries were reported.
Weber Fire District Fire Marshal Brandon Thueson said he had never seen a blaze quite like this one in his more than 20 years as a firefighter in the area. He called it, “kind of our worst-case scenario . . . something we have dreaded.”
The fire spread out of control after it was reported at about 7:30 a.m. By late morning, firefighters caught the “leading edge” of the blaze, Thueson said. He called the firefighting situation “amazingly dynamic,” noting that in some areas, crews were forced to withdraw for their own safety, then return to the fire line after the danger passed. By early afternoon, the fire had shifted northwest and away from homes.
Later in the day, fire officials began planning for the early morning Wednesday hours, when strong canyon winds were expected to once again wreak havoc by pushing flames west. They hoped cooler evening temperatures would work in crews’ favor; air tankers and helicopters made progress until nightfall.
The fire was burning on a smattering of unincorporated county land, private property, plus some land owned by the state and the Forest Service.
It was a chaotic scene Tuesday morning as officials went door to door in the affected areas, asking people to leave. Residents north of South Weber Drive were evacuated for several hours as the fire grew along Interstate 84, but they were allowed to return by the afternoon. The main evacuation involved homeowners in the Uintah Highlands subdivision just northeast of Uintah, and residents along Bybee Road and east of Highway 89.
One resident, Carolyn Jacobson, worried about what she and her family should do to keep their Uintah Highlands home safe. Should they water their roof? Dampen the lawn? They opted instead to grab what they couldn’t live without and left.
As a helicopter carrying water flew overhead, Jacobson and her husband hurried mementos and old photographs into their minivan. She held the topper on their wedding cake — they married last year — as she explained with a laugh that their plan was to head into Ogden, get lunch and maybe watch a movie in the afternoon.
“My stomach is upset,” she said. “I am nervous.”
Her nearby neighbors also feared the quick blaze as they stood outside their home. They were among the few still there at about 12:30 p.m. Most of the neighborhood had left.
In Uintah, just west of Highway 89, Jake and Maryann Wayman watched crews battle flames across the highway as they donned ski goggles to protect their eyes from the smoky air. The fire had crept dangerously close to their home earlier that morning, they said, but firefighters stopped the blaze before it reached their homes.
Evacuees were being sent to Dee Events Center on the Weber State University campus in Ogden, where volunteers checked people in and offered them food and water as residents waited to hear whether they could return to their homes.
About 300 people used the arena throughout the day, Thueson said. The venue did not house anyone overnight, but the Red Cross planned to give some families stipends to stay in hotels or to find additional space if the need arose. The events center was scheduled to reopen at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Samantha Tobin arrived at the arena about 11:30 a.m. with a car packed with extra clothes, toiletries and toys for her 9- and 6-year-old daughters. Tobin received a Tuesday morning call from the county, alerting her to the fire, and she decided to evacuate even though it wasn’t mandatory for her neighborhood.
“We are going to wait here to see if they will let us go home or if the situation changes,” Tobin said. “My husband left early this morning for a work trip to Canada, so he doesn’t even know what’s happened yet.”
Tobin lives just west of Uintah Elementary School, which was evacuated along with South Weber Elementary as a precaution, though classes remained in session at nearby High Mark Charter School. Tobin picked up her girls just before Uintah Elementary decided to evacuate its students and staff. The students were brought by bus to the event center and gathered in the arena’s seats.
South Ogden resident Casey New gave a sigh of relief as her four children ran to her in the lobby. The kids squealed and hugged their mother and one another before diving into the day’s events in unison.
“It was a little nerve-wracking this morning,” New said. “We live a little farther away [from the fire], but if it moves close enough, we could be evacuated.”
The fire indirectly affected three other schools in the Uintah-Highlands area. H. Guy Child Elementary School, South Ogden Junior High School and Bonneville High School had students living in the evacuated area who weren’t allowed to be bused home.
On Tuesday evening, Weber and Davis school district officials reported that classes would be held as usual at all schools Wednesday.
“They‘re narrowing it down — they’re chasing down some of the leads,” Thueson said of the agency, adding that investigators had not come across anything ”alarming” that would indicate the blaze was started intentionally.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced Tuesday afternoon that it had authorized federal funds to help with the firefighting costs. FEMA funding is available to pay 75 percent of the state’s eligible firefighting costs, according to a news release, but it does not provide assistance to owners of homes or businesses.
Gov. Gary Herbert toured the burn area in a helicopter and on the ground Tuesday evening.
“Heartbroken for the people of Weber County,” he wrote on Twitter.