Herriman fire: National Guard ‘shot in the face of Red Flag’

Published: Monday, Sept. 20 2010 11:37 p.m. MDT

Burn marks show how close the flames came to certain homes in Herriman, Utah.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

HERRIMAN — Admitting a communication breakdown within its organization, the Utah National Guard acknowledged Monday it should not have been conducting a live-fire training exercise Sunday that accidentally sparked a fast-moving wildfire that leveled three homes and damaged a fourth.

"We shot in the face of a Red Flag Warning. We had a communication error (Sunday). We should have been aware of it. Had we known that was in place, we would not have shot," said Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, commander of the Utah National Guard, referring to artillery training exercises at Camp Williams.

The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning early Sunday, meaning hot and windy conditions that could spark a wildfire were likely.

"Our mission is to support our citizens, not to endanger them. We failed in that yesterday," he said. "We shot when we should have known about the warning."

Tarbet said there was a miscommunication between his people who should have been monitoring weather conditions. He said crews did not learn of the Red Flag Warning until about 1:30 p.m. Sunday, about the same time the fire started. The warning was issued about 2:40 a.m. Sunday.

"We try to get this right. ... We were a little bit short (Sunday) of where we needed to be," Tarbet said. "It's a specific failure on our part, and it needs to be fixed."

Fires on Camp Williams' training range, whether they are caused by munitions or lightning, are not uncommon. The area where the fire started is in an area where there are unexploded live munitions.

"I can't have soldiers and firefighters go out and walk that ground," he said.

There is still a mile of land between the base and Herriman City, where the base has traditionally been able to put fires out in the past, Tarbet said. Sunday's fire, however, took off because of exceptionally strong winds. He estimated the fire was moving at one point between 20 to 25 mph.

Yet, officials are concerned Tuesday could have just as bad winds as Sunday's fast-moving flames.

Evacuations, which reached more than 1,200 Sunday night, had been scaled back to just 450 homes still evacuated Monday night, and officials said they were waiting to assess Tuesday morning's high winds and how the lingering fire just 25 percent contained would react.

"We expect the same type of weather conditions that we had Sunday," said Unified Fire Authority Chief Michael Jensen. "We don't want to let people back on just to kick them back out again."

As of Monday night, about 450 homes in the High Country Estates Subdivisions 1 and 2 remained evacuated but relatively secure from the fire. If high winds turned the fire either east or west on Tuesday, the fire could affect several homes near the mountaintop in the Arnold Canyon area, Scott Bushman with the U.S. Forest Service said.

"There are several structures up there," Bushman explained at a media event outside the command post in Herriman at 8 p.m. Monday. "The fire was fairly quiet (Monday), but we're real nervous for tomorrow. High winds are predicated, and there's a lot of heat up there."

National Weather Service forecasters confirmed high southerly winds with dry conditions would start at 15-20 mph earlier Tuesday and reach up to 30-40 mph by late afternoon — similar to weather on Sunday when the fire got out of control.

Officials planned to add about 200 crew members to keep any fire back and monitor those "echo" areas, where 450 homes remained in danger.

There is no cost estimate on the damaged and destroyed homes or on how much it cost to fund this firefighting operation, but Bushman said it's easily in the "six-figure range" if not more.

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