‘This is the closest one has come to burning down the whole community’: Residents watch, wait as Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires top 80,000 acres

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter drops water on the Pole Creek fire near Woodland Hills, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.

Woodland Hills • Living here for 27 years, Ken Ebert said he’s seen some wildfires. His family has been evacuated before. But this one’s different:

“This is the closest one has come to burning down the whole community.”

On Friday, Ebert sat on a foldable lawn chair on the side of the road as close as he could get to his home, just outside the Woodland Hills blockade. He wasn’t the only one. About a dozen sat or stood near him, waiting for news and watching the wildfire send seemingly never-ending plumes of white and tan smoke, like storm clouds, into the blue sky.

Ebert and his family were evacuated along with the rest of the community on Thursday. He said he’s worried for his home, but he knows there’s nothing he can do. Nothing but wait, anyway.

“So, you feel some anxiety, but there’s some sense of surreal detachment,” he said.

Ebert is among hundreds who have been displaced by the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires that are burning through timber, grass and brush in Juab and Utah counties inside the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

According to a Saturday morning update from fire officials, the Pole Creek fire had burned 68,347 acres and the Bald Mountain fire had burned 17,760 acres. Expected high winds could complicate Saturday’s suppression efforts.

While the fires aren’t the biggest Utah’s seen this fire season, Gov. Gary Herbert said during a Friday news conference that they have the potential to be the most destructive.

Houses like Ebert’s, Herbert said, are at risk. While other wildfires this season have burned in rural areas, this one is close to people’s homes, particularly near the communities of Covered Bridge, Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge, which have been evacuated. If high winds and Red Flag days continue, and firefighters can’t get a handle on the blaze, Herbert said it’s possible hundreds of houses in the fire’s path will be destroyed.

If that happens, it would be the biggest monetary loss in state history, he said.

“If you’ve got any sway with the man upstairs, let’s see what we can do to help with the weather,” Herbert said.

Yet, there is some good news, Herbert said. The fire’s potential for destruction has increased its standing on a national priority list for fire personnel and resources. As of Friday morning, the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires were listed as No. 1 and 2, respectively.

About 440 people from Type 1 — or expert — teams have been assigned to fight these fires. Herbert said hundreds more would arrive over the weekend. With those crews come more aircraft.

While aircraft aren’t “a cure all” or “magic wand,” as Jason Curry, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands spokesman, told reporters Friday, they can be a boon to firefighting efforts when deployable.

Airplanes and helicopters have been dumping water and/or retardant on the blazes throughout Friday, though they’ve had some trouble flying because of strong winds and poor visibility from the smoke.

Utah County Health Department issued a wildlife smoke advisory, and that children, the elderly and those in poor health should avoid outdoor activities. Meanwhile, Utah Valley University’s soccer team cancelled a Friday match in Orem against UC Santa Barbara, citing air quality problems.

Mike Taylor, another Woodland Hills resident, watched as a noontime pre-evacuation alert Thursday turned into a voluntary evacuation order and, by 4 p.m., a mandatory evacuation.

Taylor and his wife, Bonnie, and some of their adult children helped load up a camper-trailer, a couple of ATVs and some journals and family histories and got out.

“Some of those precious things, you can’t replace those,” said Taylor, 67, a semi-retired consultant to a dietary-supplement company.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Taylor, and Hayes Thomas watch the progress of the fire, as smokey skies above Woodland Hills are preventing the air attack on the Pole Creek fire. Taylor was evacuated from his home yesterday, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.

The Taylors are now staying in that camper, at their son’s home in Payson, watching the fire spread across Loafer Mountain — a place where Mike Taylor and his late father knew well.

“There isn’t a place I haven’t been on this mountain on a horse,” Taylor said.

Taylor said it was “a dumb, stupid decision” for the U.S. Forest Service to let the Pole Creek Fire burn. On Sunday, the fire was reported to be ½ acre in size. It was 50 acres by the end of Monday and grew exponentially on Wednesday and Thursday. Weather forecasters had warned all week of high fire danger in Utah.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted a similar criticism of the U.S. Forest Service.

Suzie Tenhagen, a spokeswoman for the fire management team, said on Friday morning that the Forest Service had been letting the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires burn in order to reduce fuels in the forests. The forest managers were surprised by what Tenhagen called a “high wind event,” as well as what meteorologists term a thermal belt.

That’s when a zone of high nighttime temperatures and low humidity sits at a narrow altitude range. Tenhagen said a thermal belt arrived at the altitude where the fire was burning.

"That was preventing the environment from kind of recuperating overnight, just keeping the humidity really low and just making it continuously dry,” Tenhagen said.

That caused the fire to balloon.

When asked about the criticisms, Herbert said he’s already have conversations with officials this year about how to best manage public lands. He said while there is room for improvement, “it’s not time to finger-point today.

“All we’re going to concentrate on is let’s get the fire out, let’s protect the properties and the people and their assets,” he said.

Another consideration in firefighting, he said, is firefighter safety. Herbert said Utahns have already lost one firefighter this fire season — Draper City Fire Battalion Chief Matt Burchett — and officials don’t want to lose anyone else.

Fire officials have said they chose to let the Pole Creek fire burn in order to minimize risk to firefighters.

Since being told to evacuate Thursday, Gary Griffin has returned to his home on the backside of a ravine, beneath the fire, just once, and it’s still standing. So is he. So, that’s a good thing.

Griffin has lived in Woodland Hills about 10 years. He’s evacuated before, just like Ebert. That time, it was only for a day. When his family prepped for the most recent evacuation, his mother-in-law left a lot of her insulin at their house, thinking they’d be back soon.

When the reality set in that they’d be gone longer than that, the family regrouped and went back home to get it.

After fighting fires for years when he was younger, Griffin said he’s seeing this side of wildfires for the first time, the side where you wait more than do.

It’s overwhelming, he said. Fighting fires, one uses pure adrenaline. When you’re forced to evacuate and wait it out, your mind wades through a lot of restless energy.

Instead of collapsing at the end of the night onto whatever hard surface he could find to sleep on, he’s worrying.

He said his family received their pre-evacuation order several hours before they received mandatory orders to leave. The extra time was good and bad for him. He said he had trouble prioritizing which possessions to bring with him, even with the emergency lockbox of valuables his wife had prepared.

He grabbed the important stuff— photos, genealogy information, some of his more expensive guns. But still.

“I try not to think about it,” he said. “I try not to think about what I didn’t get.”

Griffin and his family are staying in a trailer in Salem until the wildfire dies down and they can go home. One can see the smoke plumes from there, too.

He said he’s tired of thinking about it and is considering driving to Salt Lake City to stay with his daughter and, perhaps, get far enough away from the blaze that he can stop feeling anxious — if only until it’s time to return.

Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle contributed to this report.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salem High students Kylie Ovard, and Naomi Ellsworth cover their faces to combat the smokey air, as they head to lunch. Both of their families have been evacuated because of the Pole Creek fire, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.