A motorist driving off the highway to evade a road closure associated with Saratoga Springs’ Knolls Fire last weekend triggered a secondary blaze on private land that burned over a rock art preserve on Utah Lake’s west shore.
The trespassing vehicle was destroyed after it sparked a fire in a brush-filled ravine on the 197-acre Adelbert Doyle Smith Family Archaeological Preserve and one of its occupants suffered severe burns, according to Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon.
Meanwhile, Utah’s largest wildfire of the season, the Canal Fire in Millard County, has left a trail of destroyed buildings as it swept through the Canyon and Gilson ranges west of Leamington, where it has charred 77,000 acres and threatened a cherished natural area outside Oak City.
Utah’s fire season has gotten off to very busy start, with nearly 80% having been started by humans. Of the state’s 537 fires, the now contained 13,000-acre Knolls Fire posed the biggest threat, claiming one home, damaging a dozen others and forcing a one-day evacuation of 13,000 residents.
It also indirectly led to the Mile Marker 17 Fire, named for the spot where the vehicle left State Road 68. This secondary blaze started a few hours after the Knolls Fire ignited just north of the Smith Preserve on Sunday. Strong winds drove the Knolls Fire north, forcing the evacuation of 3,100 homes in Saratoga Springs and the closure of the highway that runs up Utah Lake’s west shore.
Although preoccupied with the major fire creeping up on houses, firefighters diverted some of their attention to the new blaze, which ultimately scarred 387 acres, including half the Smith Preserve, according to preserve manager Randy Griffin.
He estimated that 95% of the preserve’s panels of Fremont petroglyphs are on land that burned over, but Griffin’s greater concern was directed at the firebreak bulldozers cut between the highway and Utah Lake to block the new fire’s northward spread.
“A 17-foot dozer line across the preserve, I would say that’s a lot of damage,” said Griffin, a retired Bureau of Land Management ranger. ”I don’t know where we are going to get the money to rehab this dozer line. If we don’t get it done before winter, it is going to create this long erosion channel.
“The Knolls Fire never threatened the preserve,” he added. “The cascading events in response to the fire [the secondary blaze and firebreak] are what damaged the preserve.”
A team from the State Historic Preservation Office is to inspect the preserve Monday to assess the damage the fire may have inflicted on the rock art, which was left by Native Americans who inhabited the area centuries ago. “By sheer luck,” Griffin said, the bulldozer appears to have missed the panels clustered on the preserve.
“It came within inches of two separate panels,” Griffin said. “The line cut our trail in four places. We are going to have to reconstruct that to be able to bring the public back out there.”
The trouble began Sunday afternoon, when the main fire broke out on county-owned or BLM land north of the preserve that is popular for unregulated dispersed camping. Officials believe an abandoned campfire may have sparked the flames.
State Road 68 was quickly closed to traffic, which forced northbound motorists headed to Saratoga Springs or Lehi to take the long way around the east side of Utah Lake. According to Sgt. Cannon, a young man and woman decided to drive off the highway and head north across private land on the east side of the highway in an apparent effort to avoid the highway closure.
Their vehicle ignited dry brush, triggering the new fire, which quickly spread and destroyed the vehicle. The female occupant was badly burned and flown to the University of Utah’s Burn Center for treatment, Cannon said. The driver will likely face criminal charges.
“We haven’t determined what those criminal charges are yet,” Cannon said. “We haven’t submitted the report yet and until then, we don’t want to say.”
Also facing potential charges are five teenagers suspected of starting the Traverse Fire while illegally shooting a Roman candle on June 27. That fire threatened subdivisions and spurred evacuations in Lehi and Draper but was contained without the loss of a single home.
On Friday, the lightning-caused Canal Fire remained Utah’s most complicated blaze, commanding the attention of 560 firefighters, several engines and helicopters and a retardant-dropping air tanker.
The fire was 45% contained Friday and spreading to the south, where it was threatening Oak Creek Canyon, a beloved natural area that firefighters were taking extra steps to safeguard, said fire information officer Kathy Arnoldus.
"It's got some beautiful ponderosa pine growing there and a memorial to a firefighter who died on a past fire," she said. "We are working hard to protect that so it doesn't burn. We put a lot of retardant down to slow the progress of the fire in that southern direction."
Besides damaging two homes, the Canal Fire has destroyed 12 “minor” structures and another 20 commercial nonresidential structures, such as barns and other agricultural buildings.
Full containment is not expected until July 11 as it continues to burn on national forest, BLM and private land.