Millard County fire rages on while daughter laments home lost in Saratoga Springs blaze

(Photo courtesy of Saratoga Springs) This home outside Saratoga Springs' city limits was destroyed by flames Sunday as the Knolls Fire prompted the evacuation of 3,100 homes.

While cool, wet weather put a damper Tuesday on several wildfires in northern Utah, Millard County’s 66,000-acre Canal Fire raged on with little containment on the west slopes of the Canyon and Gilson mountains north of Oak City.

The lightning-caused fire burned some outbuildings and prompted a short-lived evacuation Sunday of Fool Creek and Leamington, but no homes have been lost or firefighters injured. But the worst may still come with rising temperatures and dropping humidity in the forecast.

“We are expecting more extreme fire behavior,” fire information officer Kayli Yardley said. “We have gotten very little precipitation.”

After winds died down Monday, four helicopters were able to attack the flames.

“There’s an area where the fire is still rocking pretty good, called the Narrows, and on the Gilson range [north of State Route 132],” Yardley said. “Within the perimeter of the 66,000 acres, we are doing a lot of bucket work with air support. There is 10% containment.”

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

While the Canal Fire and nearby Rock Path Fire had natural causes, human carelessness was responsible for much of Utah’s weekend outbreak of wildfires. People had a hand in at least 20 of the state’s 37 new fires, according to the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

‘Now it’s gone'

An abandoned campfire may have ignited Utah County’s Knolls Fire, whose cause remained under investigation and was 75% contained by Tuesday at 7 p.m., Saratoga Springs reported on Twitter. Whipped by high winds, fast-moving flames had prompted the evacuation of 3,100 homes Sunday in Saratoga Springs, reducing one house to a pile of rubble and ash. It was believed to be Utah’s largest evacuation in response to wildfire, reflecting the expansion of residential subdivisions into fire-prone areas.

Two years ago, the massive Pole Creek Fire spurred the evacuation of 2,000 homes as flames crept down the Wasatch Mountains toward Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge, new communities whose very names invoke the flammable terrain they now occupy.

The Knolls Fire has been by far the most disruptive of Utah’s wildfires this year, displacing some 13,000 residents. The flames engulfed one house, a second home of sorts owned since the 1980s by the family of Pauline and the late Jack Hailes.

“It was a family-use home for parties and gatherings. It is devastating for the grandkids who grew using the place,” said the Hailes’ daughter Penny Rhea. “My father passed two years ago. You lose everything. It was his legacy and his love, and now it’s gone. It’s time to find a new rainbow.”

The home, which predated the incorporation of Saratoga Springs, stood outside city limits amid trees near the Lake Mountains. Aside from a five-bay garage and the front steps, not much now remains.

All Saratoga Springs evacuees have been allowed to return after flames moved away from subdivisions on Utah Lake’s northwest shore Monday and into the Lake Mountains. The burn area stood at 13,000 acres Tuesday.

“We are expecting a higher containment tonight,” fire information officer Kari Boyd-Peak said. “There has not been a lot of growth because of the lower temperatures. The forward spread is very minimal.”

On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management closed public lands on the eastern side of the Lake Mountains, an area known for target shooting and rock art viewing. The closure remains in effect until the Knolls Fire is declared controlled.

While there was no longer an immediate threat, Saratoga Springs remained on yellow alert in case the fire again closes in on homes, said city spokesman David Johnson.

“The yellow is to say the fire is not 100% contained, so be on alert for a potential evacuation,” Johnson said. “There is no danger now to residents.”

Fireworks probe

Illegal use of fireworks Saturday ignited a hillside between Lehi and Draper. The Traverse Fire was fully corralled by Monday at 467 acres, but not before threatening neighborhoods in both cities. A group of five teens started that fire while shooting off a Roman candle, Lehi Fire Chief Jeremy Craft said Monday.

Coming off its third-driest spring on records, Utah is off to a busy fire season. As of Tuesday, the state had experienced 537 wildfires. At least 79% were human-caused, typically sparked by abandoned campfires or equipment, said Kait Webb, Utah’s fire communications coordinator.

“We have talented fire investigators. No matter when or where, we have an investigator on every incident reported,” Webb said. “There are clear indicators we track and observe, and they make a determination. Lightning is pretty easy to tell.”

What's not always easy to determine is how a human-caused fire was set and who is responsible. In the case of the Traverse Fire, investigators obtained statements from the juveniles involved.

With the approach of the July Fourth holiday, more fires are being started with fireworks — despite restrictions aimed at lowering the risk.

“It is surprising how many people aren’t adhering to them, given the extreme conditions,” Webb said. Fireworks may be used from July 2 to 5 and from July 22 to 25, and can never be used in areas that present a high risk of wildfire.

Another blaze that has kept firefighters busy has been burning east of Kanab since Friday. The lightning-caused Wire Pass Fire was approaching full containment Tuesday after scorching 1,600 acres and forcing the closure of trailheads to some of southern Utah’s most coveted hikes, such as Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon and Coyote Buttes. These closures are expected to be lifted Wednesday morning.