Wind-whipped Utah wildfire forces 8,000 people from homes

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 22, 2012 5:10 PM

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - More than 8,000 people had to flee their homes in two small Utah communities on Friday as winds whipped up a raging wildfire triggered by target shooters and pushed the flames toward an explosives factory, fire officials said.

Hundreds of miles to the east in Colorado, swirling winds and triple-degree heat also conspired to stir up a two-week-old blaze north of Denver, causing more property damage and forcing more evacuations a day after firefighters had gained new ground.

"We're losing homes right now as we speak," Colorado's Larimer County spokeswoman Kathy Messick said on Friday afternoon.

In Utah, where 2,300 homes were under evacuation, the so-called Dump fire erupted on Thursday in the Kiowa Valley near a landfill for Saratoga Springs, a town of 18,000 people about 35 miles south of Salt Lake City.

The blaze initially scorched about 750 acres of cheat grass, sage and pinyon juniper but grew to 4,000 acres by Friday evening, stoked by gale-force winds and rising air temperatures, Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Teresa Rigby said.

No homes were in imminent danger in Utah, but fire authorities said they were unable to predict when ground crews might be able to begin encircling the blaze.

"It's going to take a significant effort to get it contained," Utah's Governor Gary Herbert told a news conference after meeting with fire officials.

Herbert, who said that 20 of the state's 400 wildfires this season had been caused by target shooters, was asking the state's cities and counties to consider banning all fireworks and imposing ordinances to restrict the use of firearms.

"We can do better than that as Utahns," Herbert said. "Now is not a good time to take your gun outside and start shooting in cheat grass that's tinder dry."

The governor said the state would seek aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help cover costs of the fire. Nearly 200 firefighters were working the blaze, with air support from an air tanker and a helicopter, and more help was expected.

FIRE 'TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT'

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

The blaze was one of 15 large, uncontained wildfires being fought across the country on Friday, most 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 acreage burned nationwide is about on par with the 10-year average for this time of year, according to fire agency records.

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

In neighboring Colorado, fire managers early on Friday reported 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 risen to 60 percent before a return of gusty winds and high temperatures propelled a renewed expansion of the lightning-caused blaze.

The latest confirmed tally of property losses stood at 191 homes, which was sure to climb in the latest flare-up. The fire has been blamed for one death, a 62-year-old grandmother whose remains were found last week in a cabin where she lived alone.

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