1 home destroyed, 12 damaged as Knolls Fire grows to 10,000 acres; thousands still under evacuation in Saratoga Springs

(Justin Reeves via AP) The Traverse Fire burns near homes in Lehi, Sunday, June 28, 2020. Officials say fireworks caused the wildfire and forced evacuations early Sunday morning.

[For the latest on the Saratoga Springs fire, including the lifting of mandatory evacuations, go to this Salt Lake Tribune story.]

Saratoga Springs • One home has been destroyed and a dozen more have been damaged in the Knolls Fire that continues to threaten Saratoga Springs.

It was just one of three wildfires that threatened structures and forced evacuations Sunday, including more than 3,000 homes and some 13,000 residents in Saratoga Springs.

The home that burned was outside the city limits, according to Saratoga Springs spokesman Dave Johnson, and 12 houses in the city sustained “some damage.” Another 18 properties had fences destroyed, with one losing a shed to the fire.

“The assessment is still ongoing,” he said.

As of Monday morning, residents of about 1,300 homes in an area of the city designated “red” remained under a mandatory evacuation order. Residents of about another 1,800 homes in a “yellow” area have been allowed to return to their homes, Johnson said, “but they’re still under evacuation warning, so there’s the potential … they will be evacuated again.”

He said there are about 13,000 residents in both the red and yellow areas. And he pleaded with residents in the red areas to stay out of there.

“It may seem odd … with the rain, that we’re still not allowing people into their homes,” Johnson said. “Part of the reason is that, in addition to the fire, we have downed power lines. We’re assessing other potential hazards.”

“We just ask everyone to stay out of the area to be safe. That’s what’s most important,” Johnson said. “You can get new clothes. You can replace things.”

The fire began Sunday west of Utah Lake, and gusts up to nearly 60 mph pushed it to the south end of Saratoga Springs, forcing the evacuation of more than a third of the Utah County city’s populace.

“There’s no timeline at all” for when evacuated residents will be allowed to return to their homes, Johnson said. “The fire is only 25% contained.”

(George Frey | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Flames from a wildfire rise above homes in south Saratoga Springs on June 28, 2020.

Crews will be working on the perimeters of the fire Monday, according to Kari Boyd-Peak, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, “and trying to get a better handle on corralling this thing. The continuing rain in the area “will help crews out a lot.”

“Weather’s definitely on our side this morning,” she added.

Jason Curry, with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said Sunday night that the cause of the blaze — initially reported as being started by lightning — was still under investigation. There were no reports of injuries or fatalities.

The blaze, charring sagebrush and pinyon and juniper trees, began about 1 p.m. in an area known as the Knolls. By Monday morning, the fire had burned about 10,000 acres.

Curry said “dozens” of firetrucks from Utah and Salt Lake counties responded, “probably saving hundreds of homes.”

The winds blew from the south then shifted to the west, he said. That second set of gusts carried more humid air and moderated the fire. Still, the strong winds forced aircraft fighting the flames to stop their work at 4 p.m..

Johnson said the evacuation area was west of Redwood Road, south of Grandview Boulevard. The Pelican Bay neighborhood also was evacuated. Photographers also saw flames within throwing distance of homes Sunday evening in that neighborhood.

The flames were driven by winds blowing so hard they made it difficult to wear hats or masks. From South Jordan through Utah County, the skies were an eerie gray with a dark spot above Saratoga Springs.

Police on Sunday evening had stopped traffic from entering Saratoga Springs from the north on Redwood Road. An evacuation center was established north of the city at Westlake High School, where relief workers provided food and water for evacuees and screened them for COVID-19.

Jordan Doman and his family of six were at the school Sunday evening. He said they saw smoke from their home in Lake Mountain Estates and heeded the evacuation order.

“We’ve lived out here for 10 years,” Doman said. “So we’re pretty used to fire on Lake Mountain. So we grabbed a change of clothes and prepared to be gone overnight.”

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Knolls Fire burns on Lake Mountain on Sunday, June 28, 2020.

Doman said he had heard from people he knows offering to give his family a place to stay and other assistance.

Evacuations in Saratoga Springs, which declared a state of emergency, remained in effect at 9:30 p.m., the city tweeted.

Two other wildfires, meanwhile, spurred evacuations of their own — in Lehi and Draper and, farther south, in Millard County, where strong winds allowed the Canal Fire to escape containment, scarring more than 1,000 acres and forcing out residents of Fool Creek and Leamington.

Late Sunday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that federal funds had been approved to help cover the costs of fighting the Knolls and Canal fires.

“The authorization makes FEMA funding available to pay 75% of the state’s eligible firefighting costs under an approved grant for managing, mitigating and controlling designated fires,” a news release stated. “These grants do not provide assistance to individual home or business owners and do not cover other infrastructure damage caused by the fire.”

The FEMA release said the Canal Fire threatened 60 homes in addition to power infrastructure and $1 million in farm equipment. It also reported that evacuations included “approximately 300 people.”

Traverse Fire

Officials providing updates on the Traverse Mountain blaze, which sparked home evacuations of neighborhoods in Lehi and Draper, all expressed some mixture of exhilarated praise for the efforts of first responders and weary frustration at the fact the blaze was ignited by illegal fireworks.

“This definitely was a preventable fire,” Lehi Fire Chief Jeremy Craft said. “Just a few seconds lit this fire off. … Fireworks were never allowed up here. This is a restricted area. Simply be respectful. Following the rules would’ve prevented this fire.”

The first 911 calls in the Traverse Fire came in Saturday night around 11:15. One resident recounted being awakened by police pounding on his door, telling him to prepare to evacuate, then seeing flames get so close to property that neighbors busted out their garden hoses for a time, trying to stave off disaster.

All of which made everyone involved express bewilderment and gratitude that, as of late Sunday afternoon, not a single building had burned.

The Traverse Fire burns near homes in Lehi, Utah, Sunday, June 28, 2020. Officials say fireworks caused the wildfire and forced evacuations early Sunday morning. (Justin Reeves via AP)

“If you had told us last night we’d get out of this without losing any structures, I don’t think any of us would have believed it,” noted Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who toured the site Sunday with Gov. Gary Herbert.

“It really is a miracle we haven’t lost any structures here today,” Herbert added.

Craft said that 42 houses and approximately 100 residents from Autumn Hills Drive in Lehi had been evacuated, as well as an unknown number of people from the Maple Hollow neighborhood in Draper.

Evacuation centers were initially established at Skyridge High School in Lehi and Draper Park Middle School, with assistance from the Red Cross. Officials were screening evacuees for COVID-19.

Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson said that most of the evacuees were taken in by family members, and the remainder were put up in hotels by the Red Cross.

Craft estimated the fire to be 26% contained, and Herbert suggested those evacuated would be out of their homes for another 24 to 36 hours as crews from Utah County continued work to contain the blaze.

“This had the potential to be a very disastrous situation,” Johnson said. Instead, “We had some minor property damage — it was pretty insignificant.”

By 7:30 p.m. Sunday, residents in Draper’s Maple Hollow neighborhood were allowed to return to their homes.

Kaitlyn Webb, from the Utah Division of Forestry and State Lands, told FOX 13 in a morning interview that environmental conditions would only amplify the potential for additional wildfires going forward.

“We have had a much busier fire season than normal already, and the majority of those have been human-caused,” Webb said. “… It’s imperative for people to do their part, because our fire conditions are only going to worsen over the next few weeks.”

Craft, the Lehi fire chief, added that “super-dry” vegetation, high winds, and the usage of fireworks in a restricted area all added up to “a perfect storm” of conditions, which “combined to make this fire explosive.”

FOX 13 reported that there is a suspect “in custody and cooperating with law enforcement.”

The use of fireworks in Utah are limited to July 2-5 for Fourth of July celebrations and July 22-25 for Pioneer Day, though Cox called on mayors and city councils to be judicious in deciding what areas to allow them.

Herbert noted that with those holidays coming up, and conditions as they are, Utahns have all the reason in the world to exercise additional caution.

“It’s tinderlike conditions, and it won’t take much to start a fire,” he said. “… This is the time to not fool around. We’ve got too many lives at stake.”

‘Panicking so bad'

The Traverse Fire had scorched some 450 to 500 acres by Sunday evening, and had required some 200 assets from throughout the state — including a pair of Blackhawk helicopters called in to dump water and douse hot spots — to keep it under control.

“A fire like this quickly overwhelms local resources,” Craft said. “… It really was a huge, collaborative effort.”

Lehi resident Casey Mast relayed to FOX 13 his story of being woken up at midnight as police went house to house warning residents of an impending evacuation.

“The flames were about 50 feet tall. I was panicking so bad I couldn’t do anything [at first],” Mast said. “…They let me stay up until the flames were right up on us. We were trying to fight it with a garden hose. … All of the neighbors were working together.”

Craft, meanwhile, was clearly exasperated at the news that the fire had been started by fireworks — days before their usage is allowed and in an area where they are banned all the time anyway.

“It’s unfortunate this incident happened. It’s cost a lot of people a long, sleepless night, and as you look up at that mountain, a considerable amount of damage. And it’s not over yet,” Craft said. “I know that fireworks are fun and that people love them, but this happens every year. … I just ask residents to think about that. Have your fun, but be safe about it.”

— Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this updated story.

Editor’s note The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.