‘It rained a firestorm down on us from hell’: As Dollar Ridge Fire slows, evacuee says nothing’s left at his cabin except ash, soot and a chicken coop

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Helicopters and tankers fight the Dollar Ridge Fire at Strawberry Reservoir, Friday July 6, 2018.

This has been the worst week of Ken Wallace’s life.

He lost his home, hunting gear, a four-wheeler, an RV, boats, fishing supplies, car titles, lease agreements. The list goes on.

So, when a Salt Lake Tribune report on a recent meeting about the Dollar Ridge Fire likened finding Wallace’s chicken coop intact — next to his decimated home, which took him 15 years to build — to a silver lining in the armageddonlike saga that has been the past six days, Wallace said it rubbed him the wrong way.

“If that’s a silver lining,” Wallace said, “then, you know, hell is a silver lining.”

Wallace is among the more than 1,000 people whose homes were destroyed or threatened by the Dollar Ridge Fire, which has burned 47,789 acres in Utah’s Unita Basin since it ignited July 1. Current estimates say at least 90 homes have been destroyed.

While many residents who live near Fruitland in Duchesne County, about 50 miles east of Provo, have little more to do than wait, worry and speculate about their properties until it’s safe for them to go into the burn area and assess damages, Wallace found out about his property’s fate early, although he hasn’t seen it himself.

Instead, he asked around and someone reported back to him: Everything is gone but the elaborate chicken coop, which he just recently finished building. And, he said, all but two of his 24 chickens have died, most from extreme burns.

He said he’s heard that several more properties near his are gone.

“For some reason, right in that canyon, from the end of the pavement to Camelot [Resort], for some reason it rained a firestorm down on us from hell,” Wallace said.

(Courtesy Ken Wallace) A view of Ken Wallace's property after his cabin was destroyed in the Dollar Ridge Fire.

It’s true that extreme hot and dry conditions bolstered the fire in its early days. Now the weather appears to be switching in fire crews’ favor, Great Basin Incident Management spokesman Morgan O’Brien said.

By Saturday evening, crews had gotten 30 percent of the fire contained, up from 5 percent the day before.

Since Independence Day, the weather has shifted slightly. Temperatures cooled some and cloud cover and chances of thunderstorms aided firefighting efforts — and O’Brien said crews were capitalizing on the situation.

“We take advantage of everything,” he said. “Definitely.”

The combination appears to be working, according to a progression map of the fire.

The map shows that the fire had grown to more than 21,000 acres by Monday, the day after it ignited. By Tuesday, it had ballooned another 12,000 acres, and by Wednesday, it consumed another 7,800 acres.

From there, its growth slowed significantly. The blaze burned through about 5,600 acres from Wednesday into Thursday and slowed to consume only about 2,000 more acres into Friday, O’Brien said.

Hot conditions and isolated showers and thunderstorms were again possible in the area Saturday, and O’Brien said those posted at the fire’s command center felt a bit of rain. On Sunday, conditions will likely be wetter and temperatures are predicted to hang around 80 degrees, according to a news release from the management team.

On Saturday, fire crews focused on the blaze’s southwest flank, near Strawberry Reservoir, and hoped to stop the fire from spreading to homes near Red Creek Road.

Firefighters spent much of Friday in the same area, where aircraft dumped thousands of gallons of water on the fire to slow its growth. Crews on the fire’s northern flank made enough progress Friday that U.S. Highway 40, which connects Wasatch and Duchense counties, was reopened.

According to the release, wildfire behavior has been so extreme this season because of a low snowpack and the subsequent dry spring. That caused moisture level in vegetation across the state to reach or drop below historic levels.

Wallace said he knows that, but it’s hard not to be mad at whoever caused the fire.

(Courtesy Ken Wallace) Ken Wallace's cabin in the Uinta Basin, before it was destroyed in the Dollar Ridge Fire.

By early next week, Wallace expects he’ll be let back on to his property to see the damage for himself. He’s hoping it’ll bring him some closure, and perhaps a plan to move forward.

As of Saturday, he said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to rebuild his “sanctuary.” Part of the charm of living in the basin was its spectacular, unimpeded views. Wallace said some areas in Timber Canyon were just as beautiful as some of the national parks he’s visited.

Now the sage brush fields and patches of greenery where just two weeks ago he saw a doe and her fawn are nothing more than smoldering ash and soot.

“Even the people that have the houses left, that’s what they’re going to deal with,” Wallace said. “The beautiful view they had is now charred ruins.”

He said rebuilding there would be like living right in the “devil’s throat.”

Despite the horrible week, Wallace said he’s more fortunate than many. Even though he’s effectively homeless, he has the resources to stay at a hotel while he’s displaced. Others don’t. And some can’t afford to rebuild, even if they wanted to.

(Courtesy Ken Wallace) A view of Ken Wallace's property after his cabin was destroyed in the Dollar Ridge Fire.

Those forced to evacuate because of the fire can get assistance at Duchesne High School, where the Red Cross has opened a shelter. Those wishing to donate to the shelter for evacuees or for pets and livestock displaced in the fire can find more information on the Duchesne County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page.

Evacuees wanting to access their property can also find resources at the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page.

Evacuation orders for those with homes near the east end of the fire, called zone D2, will be lifted Sunday. Orders will also be lifted for those hose who live in the central part of the burn area near U.S. 40, or zone D4, according to the Red Cross.