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Parleys Canyon Fire: Blaze is 10% contained, but threat remains high

Daylong containment efforts showed progress heading into Sunday night

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Firefighters work on some hot spots on the fire in Parleys Canyon, on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.

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This story was last updated at 9:41 p.m. on Sunday, August 15. For the Tribune’s most recent reporting on the Parleys Canyon Fire, click here.

A fast-moving fire that began Saturday afternoon off Interstate 80 in Parleys Canyon and quickly threatened several mountaintop subdivisions along the Wasatch crest remained completely uncontained most of the day Sunday.

Although the fire had stopped spreading overnight, containment efforts were not expected to yield results until at least the end of the day Sunday, according to Sierra Hellstrom, a Forest Service information officer on loan to the Northern Utah Interagency Fire Center. And in fact, an update from Utah Fire Info — an official Twitter account that provides public information on wildfire incidents on behalf of multiple government agencies — stated that the Parleys Canyon Fire was 10% contained as of 8:35 p.m. Sunday.

Hellstrom called the fire “an emerging situation” as more crews arrived on the ground throughout the day Sunday, greatly increasing the number of personnel beyond the 120 that were assigned to the fire on its first day.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two planes and helicopter work on the fire in Parleys Canyon, on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.

Summit Park, Pinebrook and upper Mill Creek Canyon all remained under evacuation orders Sunday. Salt Lake County public safety officials asked people stay out of Lambs Canyon, where nearly 100 seasonal homes are spread along a narrow road several miles up the canyon. Summit Park was the most at risk community, yet some residents were not heeding evacuation orders.

“Some are still in there. They are very skinny roads [in Summit Park] and we have big equipment,” Hellstrom said. “We don’t push the evacuation button lightly. We want to make sure that we can create a safe space for the firefighters to get in there and work and do structural protection and assessments and not have egress impeded by the public.”

One piece of positive news came later Sunday morning. Officials tweeted that aerial reconnaissance teams mapped the burn perimeter at 619 acres, down substantially from an original estimate of 1,500 acres. Officials also reported “spot fires” near the ridge above Summit Park, the evacuated neighborhood containing a few hundred homes.

[Read more: Summit Park, Pinebrook remain under evacuation orders due to Parleys Canyon Fire]

The fire forced Polly Samuels McLean and her family to leave their seasonal home at the top of Lambs Canyon where they were getting ready for the homeowners association’s picnic with other families. But the McLeans couldn’t return home, which happens to be in Summit Park.

“We started hearing about the fire from our Summit Park neighbors and then we could see the smoke and could see the smoke getting bigger and bigger,” said McLean, a Park City attorney. “And then we heard some of our neighbors in Lambs Canyon could see the flames down lower. We just said, ‘We’re going to get out of here. This isn’t safe.’” Knowing that Summit Park evacuations had already started, she said they quickly closed up their house “and drove down the canyon. We weren’t even 100% sure we’d be able to get out.”

They got to the mouth of Lambs Canyon and watched firefighting efforts for several hours before heading to Park City to stay with friends.

“UPD [Unified Police Department] was at the mouth of the canyon making sure everyone had evacuated and making sure no one else was going up,” McLean said. Still, one of her neighbors drove hikers up the canyon to retrieve vehicles left at the trailhead serving the trail to Mill Creek Canyon.

“I’m just really grateful to all the firefighters and all the efforts efforts that are there to try to stop it,” she said. The McLeans received calls from neighbors in Summit Park asking if there was anything that needed to be done at their home. “We never went back to Summit Park, so it was definitely a little bit like, ‘I hope there was nothing I needed from there.’”

On Sunday, the Utah Department of Natural Resources closed popular boating destination Jordanelle State Park so firefighting helicopters could safely tap that reservoir’s water. Helicopters had been dipping into Little Dell Reservoir, hardly a mile from the fire, but officials decided to shift to the much larger Jordanelle Reservoir as a water source to avoid further depleting the already low Little Dell, according to Hellstrom.

“With the drought we’re dealing with, we consider impacts to communities, availability of water and the way the fire burned,” Hellstrom said. “It kind of moved up that canyon. So Jordanelle is not that far [of a flight] from the main front of the fire.”

The Parleys Canyon fire began Saturday around 2 p.m. when an eastbound vehicle ignited fires at four separate spots along Interstate 80, just east of the mouth of Lambs Canyon.

“We are still looking for the vehicle,” Hellstrom said. “The cause of the fire is still under investigation.”

Based on witness statements, officials believe a faulty catalytic converter being dragged by the vehicle was throwing sparks that landed in the dried grasses along the south edge of the road, and flames quickly spread uphill into timber.

Within an hour, smoke from the blaze could be seen from Salt Lake City.

I-80 was closed for a time, though it is was opened in both directions on Sunday. Some 2,461 Rocky Mountain Power customers lost electricity, according to a tweet from the company, but power was restored.

At least 15 aircraft responded to the fire Saturday. A dozen airtankers dropped chemical retardants much of the afternoon, helping slow the fire’s progress.

“We will continue to use aerial support and hopefully they can assist crews on the ground to hold the fire where it’s at,” Hellstrom said Sunday. Helicopters were busy early Sunday ferrying water in dangling buckets to drop on the fire, first from Little Dell, then Jordanelle. But officials held off ordering retardant drops from airtankers.

“If we drop [retardant] too early [in the day],” she explained, “it evaporates before the flames can get where it needs to. It’s a lot more useful when we see active fire behavior.”

Evacuation orders are expected to remain in effect into Monday — and possibly beyond — as the fire’s trajectory remains unpredictable.

“The fire laid down really well overnight [Saturday], Hellstrom said. “As of right now, we anticipate using [tanker drops] today, but it is really dependent on whether the fire behavior picks up — and if there are other priorities because they are nationwide resources. They go where the highest priority is.”

Right now, the Parleys Canyon fire “is a high priority,” she said. “There are homes threatened, so we’re really high on that list.”

— This is a developing story and will be updated.

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