Fire activity drives Utah, southern Idaho region to nation's No. 1 firefighting priority
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Five wildland firefighting crews flew into Salt Lake City on Monday afternoon in response to this geographic region being elevated to the nation's No. 1 firefighting priority.
The additional crews may be scattered to the three large fires burning in Utah or two wildfires in Idaho that are threatening towns and have led to voluntary evacuations.
Two Blackhawk helicopters from the Utah National Guard are assisting in fighting the State Fire on the Utah/Idaho border. On Sunday, Gov. Gary Herbert called out the Guard for the first time this summer to fight a Utah wildfire.
The State Fire at 21,000 acres is burning in northern Box Elder County and into Idaho. It is threatening Portage in Box Elder County and the community of Samaria in Idaho.
Jason Curry, spokesman with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the fire is throwing embers as it advances.
"It is reigniting itself up to a mile in advance," Curry said.
The lightning-caused blaze began Friday and rapidly spread. As of 9 p.m. Monday, it was 45 percent contained.
"The biggest concern is the proximity to the town of Portage," he said. "It is threatening a mile away from private residences. With the wind and the unpredictability fire throws at us, we are concerned."
The blaze has been elevated to a Type 2 incident because of the fire's behavior and its jurisdictional complexity — involving two states, the Bureau of Land Management and multiple local agencies.
An Arizona Type 2 team will assume command of the State Fire on Tuesday morning, which means more resources can be thrown at the fire to extinguish it, Curry said.
Crews already on the ground represent multiple states, including Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.
Sean Lodge, a supervisor with the Northern Utah Interagency Fire Center, said 10 out-of-state crews arrived two weeks ago for deployment in the Eastern Great Basin Area that includes Utah. They have since left, but five crews arrived Saturday and another five Monday afternoon.
The government uses a contracted 737 that can ferry up to a 100 people at a time to the nation's literal hot spots for fires.
The center is part of a larger, national system in which regions and fires are categorized and prioritized accordingly. Lodge said this allows fire-plagued regions like the West to utilize crews from other areas who may be idled due to lack of fire activity.
"If they have no fire activity going on, they will allow them to leave their region and let them come out here to help us fight our fires," he said.
Jennifer Hansen, who also works for the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the arrival of the Arizona crew will spell some of the local crews that have been on the fire in extreme conditions since it started.
Elsewhere in the state, the Patch Springs Fire in Tooele County had burned more than 6,300 acres and had advanced on the Goshute Reservation in Skull Valley. It is also threatening the scattered residences of the community of Terra, which is just east of Dugway Proving Ground.
BLM spokeswoman Joanna Wilson said the fire is spreading in an extreme fashion, and three bulldozers are trying to keep it from encroaching any farther on the reservation or the town.
A crew of more than 150 is battling the blaze, which started Saturday with a lightning strike.
The Millville Fire, also caused by lightning, began as two fires merged into one Sunday night. It has burned more than 2,200 acres and is only 10 percent contained.
Wildfires this year have burned only 23,000 acres — compared with last year's devastation of 422,000 acres.
"We've actually had a manageable fire season," said Ally Isom, spokeswoman Gov. Herbert's office. "We've had a number of incidents, but we have been able to keep on top of them. We would like to keep it that way and not lose any life or structures."
Isom noted that last year, the Utah National Guard was called out by the governor three times — for the fire at Camp Williams, the Dump Fire in Utah County and the Quail Fire that threatened homes in Alpine.
Last year's relentless fire season resulted in supplemental appropriations of $13 million to pay for fire suppression and another $8 million to do reseeding and restoration.
Roger Lewis, finance manager for the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the season still has six weeks left but remains a shadow of what played out in 2012.
"This is nothing compared to last year," he said. "It's very minimal so far."
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