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1 dead, 2 more towns evacuated as 2 erratic fires threaten central Utah

Published: Wednesday, June 27 2012 10:29 a.m. MDT

A Sky Crane helicopter drops 2,000 gallons of water on a portion of a fire near Fairview.

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.

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