1 dead, 2 more towns evacuated as 2 erratic fires threaten central Utah
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Related: Utah wildfires: By the numbers
Related article: Evacuated Fairview residents may be allowed to return home Wednesday
MT. PLEASANT, Sanpete County — Tuesday was supposed to be a day that evacuated residents in Sanpete County could start thinking about returning to their homes.
Instead, the massive Wood Hollow Fire took a dramatic and unexpected turn as "explosive fire conditions," including strong winds, resulted in the fire making startling runs on both ends, forcing evacuations of the towns of Fairview in Sanpete County and Birdseye in Utah County.
Adding to the chaos, yet another wildfire — believed to be lighting caused — started on the other side of the mountain from Fairview near Huntington Canyon.
Also, while search and rescue crews were surveying each of the homes and structures that had been burned, they discovered the body of a man near a burned-out structure on the west side of Highway 89 in Indianola.
The man's identity was not released Tuesday and officials were working to confirm his identification. No other details about the man were released.
The dramatic change in events started about 12:30 p.m. when strong winds kicked up both fronts of the Wood Hollow Fire. On the north end, the fire burned quickly toward the Willie Nelson Ranch, a property once owned by the iconic country singer, and pushed into Utah County. Thick plumes of black smoke quickly covered Highway 89, prompting officials to close the road from U.S. Highway 6 to Mt. Pleasant.
A couple of hours later, the fire made big movement on the other flank, prompting Sanpete officials to evacuate the more than 1,200 residents of Fairview. By Tuesday evening, the normally quiet town of Mt. Pleasant was full of vehicles and trucks hauling trailers and residents trying to leave Fairview.
The Red Cross set up a shelter for evacuees at North Sanpete High School.
"The fire alarm — the big siren — went off just one pitch, and then they just started calling people," said Adam Unferdorfer.
The siren used normally to notify volunteer firefighters was used Tuesday to warn residents that they needed to leave town.
"It was a different sounding siren than we've heard before," said Jessica Madsen, who went to the high school after she was ordered to evacuate from her home.
Madsen said she actually had her children's bags packed and was ready to go for a couple of days, even though the fire appeared to be settling down.
"This morning it looked great. We were fine this morning. Then this afternoon the winds started up. ... I think the wind shift is a little nerve racking," she said.
"For the past several days it's been doing that," added Katie Shell, who owns a business in Fairview. "It looks almost gone, then the wind kicks it back up again. And then there's another fire on the other side of Fairview Canyon so they probably are thinking they don't want us sandwiched in there."
Sanpete County Sheriff Brian Nielson said as of Tuesday evening, the fire was less than 5 miles from the town.
"Fire is encroaching on Fairview City. We were notified by the ops team that it was close enough that we definitely had concern for safety," he said. "The focus right now is to save Fairview City."
"It was pretty close. It was at the town's edge on the west side. But once it gets into dry weeds and into residential areas and streets, they can contain it. That's what I'm hoping," Shell said.
Madsen said she's trying to take what's happened to the town in stride.
"It's Mother Nature. You can't control Mother Nature. And you can't control the wind and you can't control what's happening that way. We've just been watching it from our back porch the past three days and this is what happens when the wind starts blowing strong," she said.
Sanpete County Commissioner Spencer Cox said he was concerned about the fire's latest erratic behavior.
"It's very disturbing. This is the second time Fairview has been evacuated. In 1984 it was for the opposite reason — we had water coming down, not fire. But I will say it's been the most orderly evacuation we've ever been associated with," he said.
No additional structures from those already reported had been burned as of Tuesday evening. The only reported injury was a firefighter who was treated for a minor back problem.
The sheriff's office anticipated the Fairview evacuation and the Highway 89 closure would remain in effect throughout the night.
As residents evacuated from one fire, a plume of smoke from another could be seen over the other mountain ridge.
The Seeley Fire was reported just before 6 a.m. The fire on Seeley Mountain had burned 70 acres by Tuesday evening. Though there are no homes in the area, a girl's camp which was hosting the Mt. Pleasant LDS Stake in the Miller Flat area was evacuated. The fire also forced the closure of Highway 31 through Huntington Canyon.
The additional evacuations and fire activity all came after the evacuation order for some areas of Sanpete County were lifted Tuesday morning, primarily for the subdivisions that had not been touched by the fire.
Those same areas were not under mandatory evacuation Tuesday evening, although Nielson noted that if residents weren't already in their homes they wouldn't be able to get back there because of the Highway 89 closure. Nielson said those areas were still not in danger of the fire Tuesday evening.
For the residents on the east side of Highway 89 — including Indianola and the subdivisions of Hideaway Valley and Fairview Ranchos — their homecomings were filled with both relief and sadness as they thought about their friends across the highway that weren't as lucky.
"It's bittersweet, a miracle for some and a nightmare for others," said Indianoloa Fire Chief Kent Higgins, who was evacuated from his own home for two days.
The initial evacuation area included 359 homes and 215 structures. However, the sheriff's office was unsure how many people were forced to leave their homes nor how many homes are in the area where the evacuation order was lifted.
Officials were still estimating that between 25 and 30 houses had been destroyed by the fire, including an estimated 12 to 14 primary residences, and about 50 other structures.
The problem, Nielsen said, was determining a primary residence from the many other structures, such as trailers. He said his office was in the process of counting all of that Tuesday, when they were forced to stop because of increasing fire activity.
Theo Anderson, who was evacuated Sunday night, estimated there were 60 full time residents in Hideaway Valley.
"It was kind of hairy, the fire was right along 89 down there," he said. "I didn't feel too bad (about the fire). I felt like we'd be OK when I left."
If the fire had jumped U.S. 89 however, "It would have probably cleaned us out. It would have burned all the way to Highway 6 before it quit."
Kathy Higgins, who has lived in her Hideaway Valley cabin for 10 years, agreed.
"Ours would be gone. Everything would be gone, the whole valley. There wouldn't be anything left here because we are probably in worse shape (because) we have a lot more cedars than the other side. We wouldn't be here," she said.
That's why coming home wasn't a completely happy occasion, she said, knowing what her friends on the west side of Highway 89 were going through.
"We built everything here from the ground up, my husband and I. And so it is devastating, the thought the other people have been doing exactly the same thing and lost everything," she said. "To work so hard, to have it gone so fast … we've spent a lot of time crying. It's sad.
"I have a lot of friends over on the other side that I know have lost everything. And it's devastating to come back and realize that those people are no longer able to live there and that everything that they have is gone."
Nielsen said his office was receiving help from numerous agencies, including Sevier, Juab and Utah counties. Deputies planned to patrol the Fairview area throughout the night, he said, to prevent looters and to keep an eye on the fire.
When asked whether all residents in Fairview were obeying the mandatory evacuation order, Nielson declined to answer.
The subdivisions of Oaker Hills, Elk Ridge, Indian Ridge, Panorama and Big Hollow — areas that are a mixture of summer cabins, primary residences and horse and livestock properties — have been evacuated since Saturday night.
Rocky Mountain Power late Monday offered what it called a "plausible cause for the fire." The company said a recent copper theft in the region resulted in the removal of critical ground wire may have caused a short circuit.
"We are early in the process of fully investigating this incident and any determination as to the cause of the fire should be considered preliminary at this time," the company said in a prepared statement.
Rocky Mountain Power also estimated that about 255 customers were without power in Indianola.
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