It didn't stop the fire, but it knocked it down enough that it allowed firefighters to get in there and work at least that portion of the fire. It was very effective in helping some of the homes up there in Promontory. —Mike Eriksson, area manager with Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands
ROCKPORT, Summit County — Twelve homes, many of them primary residences, were destroyed by a fast moving wildfire Tuesday near Rockport State Park that prompted evacuations of more than 300 homes.
While Gov. Gary Herbert said he and the firefighters feel horrible for those who lost property, he noted that no lives were lost, no one was injured, and the situation could have been much worse.
"We can confirm now there are 12 residences that have been burned, another approximately 15 other structures, outbuildings, some vehicles, and a couple of boats," Herbert said. "It's been a fast moving fire, but I want to emphasize how fast the response has been."
At one point on Tuesday, the flames were moving 50 to 80 feet per minute, said Steve Rutter, fire management officer of Utah's northeastern area. Despite Tuesday's successes, he said firefighters still have their work cut out for them Wednesday.
"We still have a large threat to a number of homes we can't ignore," he said late Tuesday. "There are 250 homes that are still actively, imminently threatened. It's not over tonight, it's not going to be over tomorrow."
Because of that, Rutter said firefighters would be "running 24-7 until we have 100 percent containment and we've completed our mop up."
By Tuesday night, firefighters estimated that 4,000 acres had burned from the lightning-caused blaze dubbed the Rockport 5 Fire. The fire was about 5 percent contained.
"We have homes that are completely surrounded by black — vegetation completely gone, but we were able to preserve the homes. It looks really ugly now. There's a big black spot. But there are a lot of people who will be able to go home when we open it back up," he said.
The evacuation order was expected to remain in place until at least Wednesday afternoon, at which time officials said they will reassess the situation. Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said that while he couldn't force any adults out of their homes, his deputies are requiring any families with children to leave.
About 175 firefighters from several local jurisdictions, including as far away as Herriman, joined forces to battle the dangerous wildfire, in addition to three helicopters, three air tankers and two fire retardant drops from a DC-10. Herbert said the number of firefighters on the ground would be increased to 250 by Wednesday morning and he authorized the use of the Utah National Guard's Blackhawk helicopters if needed.
"We've been painting the mountain as red as we can to try and keep the fire from getting into more homes and trying to protect those homes and property we have up there," said Utah State Forester Dick Buhler.
All of the homes destroyed were in the Rockport Estates area. By Tuesday night, the fire had pushed west and was cutting through the Promontory community.
Sonia Hellander said her friend's house, a primary residence, was one of the big homes that was lost.
"I think that was the big explosion everybody heard was his house," she said.
When the wildfire started, a neighbor helped a boy, about 13 or 14 years old, and his dog get out of that house to safety.
"The little boy was the only one home, with the dog. But we got the boy and the dog out safe," she said.
But Jon Hellander, Sonia's husband, also tried to get to the teen by riding an ATV to his house. The four-wheeler, however, ran out of gas near the residence. Hellander not only walked three miles himself to safety over the rolling hillside, but he grabbed two horses that were still in their stables on a nearby property and walked them out as well.
"Wherever he got the horses from, I don't know. And then he walked, he had quite a hike up and around and down to our house," his wife said.
Collette Murdock was just thankful Tuesday that her grandchildren and other family members got out before the blaze got too close.
"I can't complain. It is what it is. I'm grateful that all of my children are safe. And if we lose the cabin, we lose it. And if we don't, it will be a blessing," she said.
But just moments after saying that, she was able to talk to someone who was still in the evacuated area of the Rockport Estates community and could tell her which cabins were still standing.
"It's a pitched roof," she told the man on the phone, describing her summer cabin. "I'm good? Oh, thank you, I'm good! Thank you, thank you so much. They saved my Thank you. I appreciate it."
For Murdock, the news was good Tuesday. But other homeowners weren't as lucky.
"I think what made it blow up was that thunderstorm that came over," said Mike Eriksson, area manager with Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. "It just ran straight up the hill, got a little wind behind it."
Rockport Estates sits in the rolling hills above Rockport Reservoir. About 125 homes in Rockport Estates and 200 from the adjacent community of Promontory were evacuated because of the wildfire, which began about 1 p.m.
Murdock said her grandchildren and three friends were at the reservoir when they saw a lightning strike spark the fire.
"Lighting hit and it immediately started up the mountainside," she said. "It was a blessing they were down out of the area when that happened."
Paul Ewald, of South Jordan, said he was fishing at the reservoir when he saw dark clouds rolling in and decided to head to his car. Just as he got to his vehicle, he saw lightning strike the hillside about a half mile north of where he was standing.
"I drove down there in a couple of minutes and talked to two guys that were in the parking lot there and they both confirmed that lightning hit a telephone pole right opposite the dam, about 15 or 20 yards off the road," Ewald said. "It started very rapidly."
He said although it had been a calm day, the winds picked up and fueled the fire's growth. He drove to a nearby gas station and confirmed that fire crews had been notified before leaving the area.
"I texted my wife and said, 'I'm getting out of the area right now, there's a big fire underway,'" Ewald recalled. "She confirmed, 'Please, yes, get out of there,' and as I did and drove along the road, the flames were so close I had to roll up my windows. It was that hot. It was pretty scary, I have to admit."
Murdock believes a rock driveway and rock embankment that circles the perimeter of her house helped save it.
One of the cabins that burned was a summer home located about a block away from Murdock and two blocks away from Lynn Bennett. He said his cabin was safe along with Murdock's.
"It burned around both of ours and got the one right below," he said. "I heard there (were several structures burned). Propane tanks just blowing up as they burned. It's pretty bad up there."
Tori Barnhart was able to get up to her residence just long enough to grab laptops and her dog, Pinner.
"They came up and said, 'You gotta go now,'" she said. "We were all pretty much lucky to get in and get what's precious to us."
Many residents parked their vehicles off the side of state Route 32 and watched firefighting planes drop retardant, waiting for word of when the road closures and if evacuation orders would be lifted.
Two American Red Cross evacuation shelters were set up for displaced residents. One was set up at an LDS meetinghouse in Park City, 510 Silver Summit Parkway. The other was at North Summit Middle School in Coalville.
Before dark, only a handful of people had signed up to stay the night. But Red Cross spokesman Stan Rosenzweig said they were prepared to take hundreds.
"We can take as many as it takes," he said. "You never know unit it starts to get dark how many are actually going to show up. So we have to be prepared, we have to set up as soon as possible."
Most displaced initially went to the middle school for food, water and information, but then stayed the night with other family members or, for those with summer homes, in their primary residences.
But Rosenzweig said it isn't just the Rockport 5 Fire that the Red Cross is worried about. "Right now, there are six big fires burning in Utah," he said.
If people want to help, donations can be made at www.redcross.org. Or they can go to the website and learn how to go through the Red Cross training on how to be prepared in the event of a disaster.
"The more people who are trained, the better off it is for us, because the less we have to help them," he said.
The area where the fire was burning is mainly rolling hills with oak and sage brush and some pockets of aspen trees. The fire burned near state Route 32 in Rockport, south of Wanship, which led to the closure of the road at Rockport Dam.
In addition to evacuations at Rockport Estates, Sunrise Loop in the Park City community of Promontory and the Bridge Hollow subdivision in Wanship were also evacuated.
Rockport Estates is located on the west side of Rockport Reservoir, also south of Wanship. Some residents live there year-round, but many are there for the summer.
The Rockport 5 Fire is one of four burning in Utah.
The State Fire near Portage, Box Elder County, blossomed to 21,000 acres Tuesday, which prompted agencies to hold a public meeting in Malad, Idaho, to detail the plan of attack to quell the wildfire.
The Arizona Central West Zone Incident Management Team, Bea Day Incident Commander, took over management of suppression efforts of the blaze on Tuesday, which was described as extremely active. It was reported to be about 45 percent contained.
The fire was driven by strong, gusty winds and was running and torching. "Low relative humidity and dense, dry fuels contributed to the extreme fire behavior," fire officials reported.
The State Fire started Thursday eight miles west of Portage with a lightning strike. More than 220 firefighters were working to stop its spread into neighboring communities.
In Tooele County's Skull Valley, the Patch Springs Fire had burned through 10,670 acres but was no longer threatening any structures by Tuesday night. The fire was 15 percent contained.
"Firefighters are working hard with a dozer trying to get a line to the south end of the fire to prevent it from spreading to Terra and reservation" said Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Joanna Wilson.
The fire, which started by a lightning strike on Saturday, was burning about two miles northwest of the community of Terra, which is east of Dugway, and moved onto the Goshute Indian Reservation.
More than 100 personnel were fighting the fire with more expected to arrive. On Monday, a DC-10 tanker dropped 11,000 gallons of water on the fire. Winds that night made it challenging for fire crews, but the fireline protecting homes held, Wilson said.
The Millville Fire in Cache County grew to 2,250 acres and was 20 percent contained late Tuesday. Relatively calm winds throughout the day helped firefighters’ efforts.
Officials closed Millville Canyon. The road in Blacksmiths Fork Canyon was open to through traffic only.
Tuesday, crews focused on the south and southeast flanks of the fire to try and keep it north of Blacksmith Fork Canyon Road. Because of the steep terrain, fire line construction was difficult, said spokesman Larry Lucas.4 comments on this story
About 150 firefighters, including five hand crews, five engines, two helicopters and two air tankers were on the blaze, which started Sunday with a lightning strike.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue