Fruitland ordered to evacuate as Dollar Ridge wildfire spreads in eastern Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Dollar Ridge Fire seen from Fruitland in Duchesne County, Tuesday July 3, 2018.

Fruitland • Brent and Joann Yorga of Heber City stood in a gravel lot behind a Fruitland gas station Tuesday, pensively eyeing the smoke pouring from a ridge a mile or two to the south.

“See those flames coming over the ridge? That’s 500 yards from our cabin,” Brent Yorga said. “Serenity Ridge is toast.”

It appeared doubtful the couple’s cabin would survive the afternoon as winds continued stoking the Dollar Ridge Fire, burning about 100 miles east of Salt Lake City. High winds were stoking flames, pushing them down the hill toward U.S. Highway 40, devouring pinyon and juniper trees, along with many homes in their path. The Duchesne County Sheriff late Tuesday afternoon ordered Fruitland residents to evacuate ahead of the spreading flames.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joann and Brent Yorga of Heber City look on as their second home, in Serenity Ridge, appears to be consumed by the Dollar Ridge Fire, seen from Fruitland in Duchesne County, Tuesday July 3, 2018.

“We were hoping all day it would subside,” Brent Yorga said. “What can you do? At least no lives were lost. You can rebuild a cabin.”

The Dollar Ridge Fire started on private land southeast of Strawberry Reservoir in Wasatch County Sunday afternoon and quickly spread east into Duchesne County. Overnight into Monday, the burn area quadrupled in size to 30,000 acres and destroyed 20 to 30 structures, according to Gov. Gary Herbert, who flew over the burn area and visited evacuees in Duchesne Tuesday morning. He declared a state of emergency on Tuesday night for all of Utah, in effect through July.

“We’re in a good spot, better than I thought when we flew up here, but boy it can change overnight,” Herbert told reporters at noon. “With those winds we went from just a few hundred acres to 30,000 in 48 hours.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Governor Gary Herbert confers with state and local officials at the incident base for the Dollar Ridge Fire in Duchesne, Tuesday July 3, 2018.

He had viewed the burn from Utah National Guard Blackhawk helicopters, describing what he saw as “wide devastation,” although no one had actually seen destroyed homes because the fire remained too dangerous.

Later, strong winds continued to hamper firefighting, keeping aircraft out of the fray and personnel off the fire line for much of Tuesday as the fire spread to the north and east, prompting new evacuation orders.

Flying was not only unsafe at times, but also pointless, according to Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

“The bucket drops turn to mist before it even hits what we are trying to put out,” Curry said. “We hate to see [helicopters] sit because we know they are super useful.”

Early Tuesday weather conditions turned favorable, giving hope that firefighters could establish an initial point of containment, known as an anchor, on the northern flank of the fire where it was threatening homes near Fruitland, Camelot Resort, Currant Creek and Pinion Ridge.

“We have crews trying to get plugged into areas close to homes so we can begin some containment line,” Curry said.

But conditions grew complicated later in the day. Propelled by stiff southwesterly winds, flames were visible south of U.S. Highway 40 at Fruitland and points east. The high winds kept helicopters and planes out of the air while the fire spread.

Some evacuees were biding their time at Duchesne High School, awaiting word about the fate of their homes. Among those in the cafeteria were a traveling musician named Matt Lish and his extended family, some visiting from Montana. They were ordered off their property at Pinion Ridge, to the east of the burn area, Monday at 4 p.m. while they watched the flames approach in the distance.

Three weeks ago, Lish had a dream that he now believes was really a vision, a message from God that the Dollar Ridge Fire would not destroy the retreat he has spent the last two and a half years building at Pinion Ridge. “In the dream, I saw the fire coming and went to turn on the spigot but there was no water, he said. ”I heard a voice that said, ‘Peace, be still,’ and as I turned around to look, the fire consumed everything around our property but it did not consume our property.”

Joining Lish at Duchesne High School were his brother Jim, a retired military veteran, their spouses and children. Together they have been developing their Pinion Ridge property into a retreat they call Mountaintop Ministries.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Officials, volunteers, and evacuees of the Dollar Ridge Fire at Duchesne High School in Duchesne, Tuesday July 3, 2018.

“We look at it as a place of refuge to bring in people who are hurting, offering small cabins for them to come and rehabilitate and help people that are downtrodden to help them back on their feet,” Lish said.

The fire was still four miles to the west of their place Tuesday morning, but by the afternoon strong southwest winds were driving flames ever closer to Pinion Ridge to the east and Fruitland to the north. At 5:25 p.m., the Duchesne County sheriff issued an evacuation order for Fruitland south to Freedom Bridge, directing evacuees to Duchesne High School.

Numerous second homes in the Currant Creek area, where the Yorgas built their cabin south of Fruitland, were in the fire’s path Tuesday afternoon as their owners looked on from roadsides. After the winds calmed around 4 p.m., at least 10 helicopters went into action, dropping water from scoop buckets onto the heavily wooded neighborhoods.

Large fixed-wing aircraft arrived to deliver massive payloads of red slurry. “A lot depends on Mother Nature and the winds,” Herbert said at the Duchesne press briefing. “Our ability to contain is contingent upon the terrain and the weather, and the ability to protect these structures. Many of the homes don’t have defensible space. They are close into where a wooded fire is going to burn.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Governor Gary Herbert confers with state and local officials at the incident base for the Dollar Ridge Fire in Duchesne, Tuesday July 3, 2018.

Herbert strongly encouraged people to respect evacuation orders, while the Duchesne County Commission put it more bluntly: Violate closure orders and you face arrest and $1,000 fine. “There is always a reluctance to leave,” Herbert said. “You feel like if you are there you can protect my home, but it’s not worth it. We can build the homes and the structures. It’s going to be hard to replace your life.”

He invited those who want to help evacuees to contact the Red Cross at www.redcross.org or to call a local LDS stake president, Jason Young, at 435-823-1281.

Herbert was frustrated with the number of wildfires arising from human carelessness. The Dollar Ridge Fire, as well as the other three largest wildfires burning in the state — the Trail Mountain, Black Mountain and the West Valley fires — are all said to have been caused by people.

“And that means they are preventable. We call on everybody to be wise in what you do in the outdoors,” Herbert said. “With your ATVs, don’t park a hot engine over a patch of weeds. Only do a campfire in a designated campground. Be careful with fireworks. A lot of this is just common sense.”

Meanwhile, near Pine Valley in southwest Utah, 584 personnel are working to contain the West Valley Fire. That fire has burnt 10,836 acres, according to a news release.

Hand crews, bulldozers and aircraft are continuing to build containment lines around the West Valley Fire. Only 5 percent of the blaze has been contained, the news release said.

Local, state and federal agencies and officials on Tuesday urged the public to be careful not to ignite more fires over Independence Day. Multiple counties in Utah have banned fireworks on unincorporated lands and a slew of cities have instituted similar restrictions.

Salt Lake City Fire Chief Karl Lieb tweeted photos of firefighters delivering signs announcing fireworks bans in the restricted parts of the city. Fireworks are prohibited east of 900 East, west of Redwood Road, north of South Temple and in city parks.

Even an outdoor rite, campfires, are under scrutiny. Rangers at Zion National Park on Twitter announced a campfire ban throughout the park. They are prohibited even in campgrounds.