Fruitland • When Chad Hintze rakes through the blackened rubble of what used to be his cabin, he hopes to find one thing: a pair of bright yellow wooden skis.
If they’re gone, and it’s likely they are, Hintze will search for the metal bindings. And if there’s no trace of those either, well, he shrugs, not finding the words, he just can’t think about that.
The skis had hung crisscross above the fireplace in the getaway home he and his wife, Leila, were months away from finishing. They’d started construction in 2015 when Hintze’s dad, Mark, was still healthy and had helped design the layout. Those were his skis, the ones he’d worn when he was a teenager, the ones he’d worn a month before the stem cell treatment that didn’t stop the leukemia from spreading.
The ones he’d left for his son when he died in April.
“I just wanted those skis,” Chad Hintze said, his voice cracking.
He and 150 other residents in Duchesne County learned the fate of their cabins at a community meeting with wildfire officials Tuesday morning at the small Mormon church where they had evacuated during the worst of the Dollar Ridge Fire.
Officials said 74 homes were destroyed, a smaller estimate than the 90 previously reported. Another 131 camping trailers also burned, and 25 cars, said Mike Eriksson, area manager for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
As firefighters continue to battle the blaze, which was 45 percent contained Tuesday evening, another 12 cabins remain under threat in more remote canyon areas. Investigators have determined the fire was human-caused but are not sure specifically how.
From the chapel’s doorstep, looking across U.S. Highway 40, the view offers a glimpse of the damage the blaze has left behind in the small community of mostly secondary residences now nestled between Strawberry and Starvation reservoirs, 90 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. The hillside is completely charred. The sagebrush and cedar trees that were there before are now ash. The cabins that sat on the slope are razed. The nearby creek bottoms are speckled with black soot.
Beyond the ridge lies another 52,000 scorched acres from the biggest wildfire to hit Utah this summer. Eight others are burning from the state’s northern border to its southern.
The meeting Tuesday was the first time in the 10 days since the Dollar Ridge Fire started on July 1 that residents could look at a map of the area and see if their home was affected (red dots meant “residential destroyed”). Hintze had walked into the center with “1 percent of hope” that his place had been spared. He walked out wiping tears from behind his sunglasses after finding out it wasn’t.
The update, though, was a lottery that no one won.
For those who lost their cabins, the agonizing wait to find out was over. But the cleanup process was just beginning and many, including Hintze, were still not allowed to return and assess the pile of rubble left behind. There would be insurance claims to file and furniture to replace and keepsakes missing and investments lost forever.
For those whose houses remained standing, there was sympathy for next-door neighbors and friends whose homes were gone. With the power being off for days, even those who were allowed back in were finding fridges filled with spoiled food. Their once-pristine backyards, too, with sweeping views of canyons and lakes had transformed into blackened hellscapes.
“Our [house] happened to be safe, so we’re happy about that,” said Christine Hansen, 57, pointing to the hillside where little tornados of dust and ash spun.
Sonja Knight declared her cabin of 11 years was “still standing,” too. She feels relieved. But she can’t help obsessing over the line that’s yards away from her backdoor, marking where the fire stopped.
What if it had continued? What if it her place had burned? What would she be doing now? Why was her house saved?
Sandy Lublin, 69, doesn’t want to question why her home made it. But, feeling uneasy, she plans to keep a bag packed in case of another sudden evacuation.
In its early days, the fire tore quickly through trees and grasses parched by a dry spring and fueled by heavy winds. It grew to 21,000 acres the first night and ballooned another 12,000 the next day. Growth has slowed significantly since then, though, and a rainstorm rolling over the region helped the effort Monday and Tuesday as temperatures soared in the high 90s.
A light haze hung over the hillsides along U.S. 40, where small patches continued to burn in thick pines and crews worked to put out hotspots. Helicopters picked up water from the creek that runs alongside the road.
“There’s a lot of islands of green that could be burning for weeks,” Eriksson said.
Behind him, residents hugged in the parking lot of the Mormon meetinghouse. They filled their cars with water bottles and bags of dog food donated in the aftermath. One man, shocked from seeing the maps, remarked, “It’s hard to believe that fire was that hot and took out everything.”
Others found solace at Big G, a small cafe and the only business between Heber and Duchesne. Wendy Miller, the cashier, has seen folks come in weary and crying. When they worry about their singed backyards and lost trees, she tells them the vegetation is “like a haircut — it will grow back.” When they fear what they’ll find upon returning home, she encourages them to remain positive. When they explain to her their cabin is gone, she says how sorry she is. It’s all she can do.
Dennis C. Ott, 78, and his wife, Dianne, ordered lunch there Tuesday and called their kids to tell them the family cabin was gone. They’d spent 20 summers there, rockhounding, fishing, watching the stars, “just getting out of the hustle and bustle” of Salt Lake.
“Where the hell am I going now?” Dennis Ott said.
Chad and Leila Hintze own a house in Sandy. But they planned to sell it once their cabin was finished and retire in Duchesne County. They’ve invested $130,000 in building it, including draining their 401(k) accounts.
“I put everything I had into it,” Chad Hintze said. “It’s sickening.”
“It is,” Leila added. “It’s sickening and heartbreaking.”
Like many others in the fire’s path, their cabin is uninsured. But they had a fire break around it, a tin roof and cement boards that should have acted as a retardant. Leila Hintze pulls up a picture on her phone taken last month. It was going to have 30 windows and 28-foot tall ceilings. “It was going to be a beauty.”
For the past three years, they’ve spent most weekends up there working to build it. They liked listening to the ice melt in the spring and the birds chirp. They liked hunting deer and elk and moose. They liked finding solace.
Chad Hintze wears a green bracelet with his dad’s name on it. Most of all, he liked having a place where he could go to remember him.