Utah wildfire forces evacuation of over 1,000 homes

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 22, 2012 5:10 PM
Utah wildfire forces evacuation of over 1,000 homes

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - More than 1,000 homes were evacuated from two small Utah communities on Friday as high winds whipped up a brush fire triggered by target shooters and pushed the flames toward houses and a nearby explosives factory.

The so-called Dump fire erupted on Thursday in the Kiowa Valley near a landfill for Saratoga Springs, a town of 18,000 on the west shore of Utah Lake, about 35 miles south of Salt Lake City.

The blaze initially scorched about 750 acres of cheat grass, sage and pinyon juniper south and west of town, but by Friday, a combination of strong winds and rising heat shifted the fire's direction and sparked rapid growth, Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Teresa Rigby said.

"We've probably doubled the acreage by now," Rigby said. She said fire crews had cut containment lines around 20 percent of the blaze, but that number probably slipped as flames spread.

About 100 firefighters were working the blaze on Friday, with more teams expected, Rigby said. Air support was being provided by one air tanker and one helicopter. A red-flag warning for high wildfire hazards was posted across Utah, and Rigby said authorities are expecting winds of more than 20 mph by afternoon.

Sheriff's deputies with bullhorns rolled through Saratoga Springs neighborhoods ordering the first evacuations at about 10 a.m., after flames had burned to within half a mile of homes. By midday, evacuations were expanded to include a portion of nearby Eagle Mountain, just east of Saratoga Springs.

Homeowner and commercial photographer Renee Keith said she and her husband decided the fire had burned "too close for comfort" and began packing before authorities ordered them out. Keith said she packed her children's baby books, the computer hard drives, one bag of clothes and camera equipment.

"I was kind of nervous, especially when we were packing the car," Keith told Reuters. "Ash was falling on us as we were pulling away."

The Keiths said their biggest concern was for a nearby plant that makes explosives for the construction and mining industries. The fire was reportedly burning within one mile of the factory, but authorities said the flames appeared to have burned around it.

It was not clear Friday how long authorities would keep residents away, Rigby said.

The blaze was one of 15 large, uncontained wildfires being fought across the country on Friday, most of them in six Western states - Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported.

Although federal authorities say the fire season got off to an early start this summer in parts of the Northern Rockies, the amount of acreage burned nationwide is about on par with the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records. The number of fires tallied by the government at this point is actually below average.

The biggest by far is the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in southeastern New Mexico, which ranks as that state's largest on record and has charred almost 300,000 acres, but that blaze is nearly 90 percent contained.

In neighboring Colorado, fire managers on Friday reported making progress against a 68,000-acre fire burning west of Fort Collins, near the Wyoming border, after two days of cooler temperatures, calmer winds and higher humidity.

Officials there said containment of the fire, which ranks as the most destructive on record in Colorado, had increased to 60 percent.

But a return of triple-digit temperatures and gusty winds in the forecast posed a renewed challenge to firefighters battling the lightning-caused blaze, fire commander Bill Hahnenberg said.

The fire has been blamed for one casualty so far, a 62-year-old grandmother whose remains were found last week in the cabin where she lived alone.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman and Stacey Joyce)