Evacuees return home in Saratoga Springs, but Knolls Fire still could pose a threat

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The fire in Saratoga Springs burned up to the edge of South Swainston Avenue, Monday, June 29, 2020.

Saratoga Springs • The evacuation is over — for now.

About 13,000 relieved residents got word Monday that they could return to their Saratoga Springs homes, the Utah County city announced at 12:30 p.m. But all of them remained under a warning that they might have to flee again at a moment’s notice if the Knolls Fire again creeps closer.

One home had been destroyed and a dozen more damaged in the wind-whipped blaze that continued to burn Monday.

It was just one of the three wildfires that threatened structures and forced evacuations Sunday, including hundreds of residents in Lehi and Draper, hundreds more in Millard County, and about a third of the populace of Saratoga Springs.

Sunday’s evacuations in Saratoga Springs were believed to be the largest ever ordered in Utah in response to a wildfire, dwarfing the disruptions caused by the 2010 Machine Gun Fire, which forced residents from more than 1,650 homes in Herriman and destroyed three, and the 2018 Pole Creek Fire, which resulted in the evacuation of 2,000 homes in Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Knolls fire melted fences and did some property damage, but spared the homes on Sunrise Drive in Sunday's fire, in Saratoga Springs, Monday, June 29, 2020.

The home consumed by the Knolls Fire was outside city limits, according to Saratoga Springs spokesman Dave Johnson, and 12 houses in the city sustained “some damage.” Nine homes had property damage, and 18 fences were scarred. Flames also claimed a shed.

The city, which remained under an emergency declaration Monday, designated the 3,100 evacuated homes in a “yellow” area. Residents could return to their homes, with their power restored, Johnson said, “but they’re still under evacuation warning, so there’s the potential … they will be evacuated again.”

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Jason Curry, with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said Monday afternoon that the blaze was human-caused, probably from an abandoned campfire. An investigation was underway.

There were no reports of injuries or fatalities.

The fire, charring sagebrush and pinyon and juniper trees, began about 1 p.m. in an area known as the Knolls. By Monday afternoon, it had scorched about 12,000 acres and was about 25% contained.

In Saratoga Springs’ evacuated neighborhoods, the smell of burnt sagebrush hung in the air Monday, but life — such as it is during the coronavirus pandemic — otherwise looked normal.

Sunday wasn’t the first time Nephi Carter and his family worried a fire would destroy their Saratoga Springs home.

The 47-year-old Carter said he had the house under contract to buy in 2012, when another blaze burned on the ridge perhaps a quarter mile from his home. He wondered if they would have a house to move into, but that fire didn’t destroy any homes in his neighborhood.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Saratoga Springs resident Nephi Carter talks about fire in the hills behind his home, Monday, June 29, 2020.

On Sunday evening, Carter, his wife and five children were towing their recreational vehicle home from camping on Boulder Mountain. They were still on the east side of Utah Lake when they heard their neighborhood had been evacuated.

Carter said he steered the truck and trailer to kin in Cedar Fort and stayed there. He and his family were among those allowed back into their homes Monday morning.

Carter’s house is perhaps a quarter mile from the ridge where the blaze burned. He wasn’t worried the wildfire itself would reach his home, but he feared that it would ignite residences along the foothills, starting a chain reaction of burning houses that would engulf where he lives, too.

“We were very lucky,” Carter said. “Really, very lucky that [the fire] didn’t burn more than it did.”

Carter and his family were ready to evacuate again if need be. At noon on Monday, his truck and RV were parked on the street facing the main road out of the neighborhood.

“We’re going to leave it hooked up just in case,” Carter said.

Be prepared

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Knolls Fire melted fences and did some property damage but spared the homes on Sunrise Drive in Sunday's fire in Saratoga Springs, Monday, June 29, 2020.

Up the street, Brandon Turner was doing yardwork while keeping on eye on Lake Mountain. He and his four children were ready to leave their house again if the fire flared up.

“Life lesson is: Always have a bag packed and ready,” Turner said.

Turner was working in West Jordan on Sunday, when he received a call from his wife telling him they had to evacuate. She and their four children were ready to go when Turner got home. They went to his wife’s parents’ house in Riverton. The family returned to Saratoga Springs about 10 a.m. Monday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The fire in Saratoga Springs burned up to the edge of South Swainston Avenue, Monday, June 29, 2020.

In a neighborhood where the fire swept up to fences and backyards, kids rode their bicycles through the burn scar Monday.

One resident whose vinyl fence was melted said she didn’t stick around to see that. She evacuated when the blaze was still south of her home.

“I’m OK. I’m just relieved,” said Amber, who gave only her first name because she didn’t want other reporters seeking her out.

On Monday, wildland firefighters in their soiled yellow shirts and green pants — and red cloth masks — gathered at Sage Hills Elementary School and pitched tents on the grass behind the playground.

They were working on the perimeters of the fire, explained Kari Boyd-Peak, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management and the team coordinating the firefighting, “and trying to get a better handle on corralling this thing.”

Monday’s rains “will help a lot,” she said. “Weather’s definitely on our side this morning.”

At an afternoon news conference, Boyd-Peak said the overnight showers and cooler temperatures held the blaze to little growth. The flame fronts that drove residents out of their homes Sunday were gone Monday, she said, but “it’s still dangerous around the perimeter.”

About 200 firefighters still were working on the blaze Monday.

Both Boyd-Peak and Johnson, the Saratoga Springs spokesman, asked people to stay away from the public lands around Lake Mountain until further notice. They worried people hiking or wanting to see the fire and burn scar would block the firefighters’ routes or need to be rescued.

“We don’t want folks out there recreating right now,” Boyd-Peak said. “We don’t know what all the hazards are.”

She said those with private property or grazing permits on Lake Mountain could go to the command post at Sage Hills Elementary School and ask to be escorted into the area.

Boyd-Peak said Lake Mountain is a “problem area.” The Knolls Fire is the third blaze there in June.

“There aren’t a lot of homes in this area,” she said, “but there are homes in the wildland-urban interface” — a term for where houses meet wildfire fuels.

Canal Fire

Farther south, in Millard County, high winds exploded the Canal Fire, which started Friday outside Oak City, from 450 acres to at least 30,000 acres, forcing the evacuation of about 300 people in Leamington and Fool Creek, according to Kayli Yardley, fire information office for Fishlake National Forest.

That blaze, believed to be sparked by lightning, started on private property before spreading onto BLM and Forest Service land surrounding the Canyon Mountains east of Oak City.

Erratic winds kept firefighting aircraft grounded, Yardley said. The terrain is mostly rolling hills covered in cheat grass and pinyon-juniper woodlands. The arrival of cool, damp weather greatly slowed the fire, and residents returned to their homes, but the blaze remained a threat and officials elevated efforts to put it out.

“It’s the biggest, most complex fire in the state right now,” Curry said. “We don’t have a good feel for the acreage because air traffic is shut down.”

Some outbuildings were destroyed, but no homes have been lost.

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.”

Also in Millard County, the Rock Path and Antelope fires started Thursday south of the Sevier Playa, before growing to a combined 9,000 acres and merging Friday, according to incident spokesman Kevin Abel. About 355 firefighters were battling the fire Sunday while high winds kept aircraft out of action for much of the day.

As of Monday, the fire had blackened 21,000 acres of mostly federal land but was 75% contained. No structures were threatened. Firefighters focused their efforts on preserving grazing lands and keeping flames away from a natural gas pipeline that passes through the area.

“We will start mop-up operations today,” Abel said Monday. Most of the people and resources working the Rock Path Fire are being redirected to blazes raging elsewhere.

Traverse Fire

(Justin Reeves via AP) 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.

On the border of Utah and Salt Lake counties, the Traverse Fire — which burned on the mountain that separates Draper and Lehi — prompted evacuations in those cities. The affected residents were allowed to return to their homes Sunday evening.

Officials say the blaze was started by the use of illegal fireworks late Friday.

“This definitely was a preventable fire,” Lehi Fire Chief Jeremy Craft said Sunday. “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 use of fireworks in Utah is limited to July 2-5 for Fourth of July celebrations and July 22-25 for Pioneer Day. They are always banned in that hillside area.

No homes were lost to the flames.

“It really is a miracle we haven’t lost any structures,” Gov. Gary Herbert said Sunday after touring the Traverse Fire.

Power Line Fire

Crews responded to a fire in Juab County near Mona, shortly after 5 p.m. on Monday.

An estimated 50 to 100 acres was burning, officials said, and threatening a natural gas power plant, high voltage lines and a large commercial tomato greenhouse.

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