White Rocks residents returning home

Did tribal member stop 2 from putting out blaze in early stages?

Published: Monday, July 2 2007 12:23 a.m. MDT

An air tanker drops retardant Sunday on the Neola North Fire. About 100 members of the Utah National Guard have been called up to provide support in threatened areas.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

NEOLA, Duchesne County — Residents of the small community of White Rocks warily returned to their homes Monday, even as an estimated 400 firefighters continued to battle a raging wildfire.

Although fire officials initially said the Neola North Fire had grown to consume nearly 33,000 acres, that estimate was later retracted.The fire remains at 30,500 acres and only 5 percent of it has been contained.

Meanwhile, members of the Utah National Guard were assuming their posts at a variety of checkpoints in support of local law enforcement.

Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team Commander Kim Martin said "excellent progress" was made on the fire's south and east flanks Sunday.

Eight helicopters, four heavy air tankers and two single-engine air tankers were used Sunday to fight the blaze, which by Sunday afternoon was stretching into the Ashley National Forest, sending up clouds of black smoke as it burned fir trees and other beetle-infested dead timber. About 100 members of the Utah National Guard were called up late Sunday by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to provide support to law enforcement at selected road-closure checkpoints and campground evacuation sites in threatened areas.

Ground crews were expected to work through the night Sunday setting up a containment line.

Martin would not answer questions Sunday afternoon regarding what sparked the fire, only to say it was "still under investigation."

The fire started about 9:30 a.m. Friday approximately four miles north of Neola on public Ute tribal lands. The fire, according to witnesses, started at the base of a power pole. Originally, there were reports a downed line may have sparked the blaze, but Moon Lake Electric Association said Saturday they had no reports of a malfunctioning line.

Jeremiah Warren was working at a welding shop about a mile away when the fire started. He said he and a friend rushed toward it when it was only a quarter of an acre or less. Warren said he and his friend offered to use bulldozers from their business to help put the fire out. Pictures taken by Warren show the fire in its initial stages, and it appeared to be manageable.

But Warren said he was stopped by a tribal member who apparently thought the fire would burn itself out.

"He pretty much shut us down," he said.

As Warren was driving away from the fire, he passed a fire truck about five minutes later. But by that time it was too late.

"I feel a little guilty about it ... could have stopped it and saved some lives," he said.

That rapidly moving fire claimed the lives of George Houston, 63; his son, 43-year-old Tracy Houston; and 75-year-old Roger Roberson. Tracy's son, 11-year-old Duane, survived the fire by running through thick smoke and by jumping two fences, including a barbed-wire fence, before a firefighter found him.

Sunday, members of the Houston family were escorted by Uintah County and fire officials to the area where the tragedy occurred for the first time so they could get a sense of what happened.

Before they left, Margie Houston, George's widow; JaLynn Houston, Tracy Houston's widow; and Duane shared memories with the Deseret Morning News of their loved ones, and recounted what happened that day.

Duane Houston said they had already purchased the hay and had actually started to drive back when they noticed Roberson trying to move his sprinkler system to prepare for what then looked like a manageable fire. The two men and young boy got out of their truck and went to help, but a sudden burst of wind made the fire explode over the hillside and pushed it straight toward them.

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