Fire that destroyed three homes in Bountiful and forced evacuations was likely human-caused

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fire crews battle a fire in Davis County in Utah on the East Bountiful bench that grew to 150 acres early Friday morning, Aug. 30, 2019, and destroyed three homes. On Sept. 2, officials said the fire was 100% contained.

Marty Christensen didn’t have much time to react when police started pounding on his door around 1:30 a.m. Friday.

“They gave us five minutes to grab what we could and go,” said the Centerville man, who awoke to discover the Gun Range Fire was within a few hundred feet of his home.

Christensen grabbed his two Bichon Frise dogs, Madison and Sam, and his laptop computer. “I forgot one thing — my insulin. But I was good until they escorted me to my house and I got it,” he said.

The fire in Bountiful and Centerville destroyed three homes, damaged five more, and prompted the evacuation of 400 homes Friday morning, police and fire officials said. Officials later narrowed the evacuation area to about 240 homes. The evacuation order will be in effect through the night.

No injuries were reported from the fire, which a Bountiful police officer saw on the city’s east bench around 1 a.m., Bountiful Lt. Dave Edwards said. Two of the homes that burned were in the area of 1000 East and 1000 North; the other was on Edgehill Drive.

By Friday afternoon, fire investigators had traced the fire’s cause to an abandoned campfire in Ward Canyon, spokeswoman Kim Osborn said, adding that police are searching for two people driving a small SUV.

Residents watched early Friday as wind drove the flames — which burned spectacularly in the dark — in unexpected directions.

“We thought, oh, we’ll be OK, because it was all moving away from us,” Christensen said. "Sure enough, 30 minutes later, it was all coming this way toward us. It’s all dry grass so it just moves like crazy. Everybody was worried.”

Christensen’s neighbor, Romana Ruemmele, was also rousted in the middle of the night.

“Our house was very close to the fire,” said Ruemmele. “They said, ‘You have to get out! You have to get out! There is a fire right behind your house!’ That’s why I’m still wearing pajamas. I had to jump out of bed.”

It was a scene repeated throughout the neighborhoods closest to the fire.

“They came to our house, then ran to the neighbor and then ran to the next neighbor,” Christensen said.

“But we can't go home,” Ruemmele said. “That's why I was sleeping in the car last night.”

Not comfortably, but while 200 firefighters from several different agencies battled the blaze, Ruemmele did curl up and get some sleep.

Christensen did not. “When we got down here, we tried to sleep in the car, but that never works,” he said.

The neighbors were left standing on 400 East looking up the mountain as smoke swirled, helicopters flew by and they strained to see if their homes survived. Looking up at the smoking mountain, Ruemmele expressed concern that there might still be unburned dry grass near her home.

“I hope it doesn't come any closer,” she said. “It depends how the wind blows. It's awful.

“I wish we would get a big, nice rain. Or snow,” she added with a laugh.

And she was hoping to change into real clothes.

Christensen — who got out of his house wearing a T-shirt and shorts — said he had an appointment Friday morning, “but I hate to show up like this. … We’re ready to go back home.”

Centerville lifted its evacuation order about 10 a.m., although Centerville Police Chief Mike Child said Island View Drive remained closed to nonresidents. The evacuation zone in Bountiful’s northeast corner was reduced — the initial mandatory evacuation area covered homes east of 900 East and north of 400 North to the city limits; by late Friday morning, the southern boundary was moved north to 900 North.

By Friday afternoon, the fire was estimated to have burned 365 acres, and was 10% contained, Osborn said.

She added that early Friday was more of a “defensive action," which switched to “an offensive game” after the sun came up, and that crews were making progress.

Davis County schools were in session on Friday, although school buses were unable to enter the areas affected by the fire.

Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this report.