You have had people who have worked day and night and have looked so tired and they're just dragging and they're just working their hearts out trying to do the best they can. They are all heroes. —Sherri Berntsen
ROCKPORT, Summit County — Robert and Sherri Berntsen knew the fire was right over the ridgeline. But they didn't want to leave their house.
Not because they thought they could save it. But because someone was needed to take care of the wildlife.
"We don't care about the house, we can rebuild the house," Robert Berntsen said Friday just hours after his evacuated neighbors were allowed to return to their homes.
"You just feel a connection with (the wildlife). They watch you, you connect with them. They bring their babies and show them off every spring. And when they were in trouble, where did they come? They came here," added Sherri Berntsen.
"It really makes you think twice about what's important when you have to leave."
The Berntsens live in a large house surrounded by heavy vegetation near the top of the Bridge Hollow community. They frequently see deer and moose eating some of the greenery around their house. When the Rockport Fire kicked up earlier this week, the wildlife drank a nearby pond dry, they said.
Because of that, the Berntsens filled buckets of water in back of their home several times a day for displaced wildlife to drink. As the couple spoke with the Deseret News Friday morning, an adult female moose and her calf walked into the backyard to drink from the water bucket.
As the residents of the Bridge Hollow and Promontory neighborhoods expressed gratitude to be back in their homes Friday, residents of the fire-ravaged areas of Rockport Estates and Rockport Ranches were told the evacuation order for them will likely continue until Monday evening. There are approximately 110 homes in those communities.
Summit County District Fire Warden Bryce Boyer said "significant improvements" were made Thursday in fighting the Rockport Fire. By Friday night, the 1,920-acre fire was still 50 percent contained. Eight homes, including three primary residences, have burned in those areas.
The main focus for firefighters Friday was to put out the hot spots that were still intertwined among the homes. "We are finding a number of them," Boyer said.
"Our game plan is to continue mopping up, or continue securing the areas around the existing cabins that still have hot areas, and those spots on the west flank of the fire to try and secure that," he said.
Another main reason many residents are still being kept out of their homes is because of infrastructure in need of repair.
Crews needed to secure leaking 500-gallon propane tanks commonly found at each residence; building inspectors were going to look for damage at each structure; and power company workers were expected to start working on all the downed power lines.
Another concern is debris flow. Boyer said thunderstorms are expected Saturday afternoon over the freshly-scarred land.
"What they've been seeing in burns like this is significant debris flows and so on. That's another reason we want to try and keep people out over the weekend," he said.
Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, toured the burned area Friday. He said even though the probability of a heavy debris flow in that area this weekend is small, it is still a possibility. And it will continue to be a risk for the next two years.
"I would be concerned if I lived there. What I would do is have my children, if they slept in the basement, I would move them out of the basement today and I would have them sleeping upstairs," he said. "A lot of times what happens is debris comes down, it breaks the basement windows and floods the room and slams the door shut. ... The debris comes down, it's like cement trucks cutting loose and coming down the hillside at fast speed."
McInerney said it would take about a half-inch of rain in 30 minutes to create a potentially dangerous debris flow. While that doesn't happen often, he noted that of all the fires in Utah over the past two years, 80 percent of them have later had debris flows.
Fire officials also took members of the media on a tour of the fire-ravaged area Friday. An exact count of the number of vehicles, boats and campers destroyed isn't expected until Monday.
A field of black ground surrounded many homes — some within just a few feet of the residences. A big factor in homes that survived compared to those that didn't was defensible space previously created by homeowners.
"You see some houses ... that had absolutely no firefighter activity, burned all the way around it, yet the house is still standing because it had defensible space," said North Summit Fire Chief Ken Smith.
The dry sage and oak brush in the Rockport areas has made it a tough fire to fight, along with the changing weather, he said. "The winds have been absolutely unpredictable during this entire fire."
But Smith said his firefighters have been up to the challenge, so much so that he had to actually order some of them to get some sleep Friday.
"It's been hot, smoky. People, they are just worn out. Today I made some of my firefighters, as badly as they wanted to come up here, I made them stay home, because they're just drained. And we're still going to be here. This isn't over," he said.
Smith gave high praise to his firefighters, who he noted were all volunteers. He said additional volunteer firefighters, who had to work day jobs during the week, would be available this weekend.
Dave Miller is one of those volunteer firefighters working the Rockport areas. He had extra motivation this week because his house was one of those that were threatened.
"It got within about 4 feet of my deck. It burned my trampoline. There are some singed parts on my deck. So it got a little too close for comfort," he said.
"I love the job. It's a volunteer position, but I absolutely love it. And it's a way for me to be involved with my community and help out my neighbors," Miller said.
He added that the work of firefighters isn't over yet.
"There's still a huge potential (for fire). There's still a lot of area that can burn," he said.
A drive along Oak Haven Drive showed homes that sit high on the mountain ridge with blackened land nearby. A fire break created by bulldozers adjacent to the road helped keep the flames from reaching the homes. Residents in those houses overlook the Rockport Estates and Rockport Ranches subdivisions.
"This was the line where they wanted to make a stand here," said Mike Eriksson, northeast area manager of the State Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
Ron Cella has a large house at the top of Rockport Boulevard. Fire came within 6 feet on three sides of his home and within 18 inches of a shed. He had high praise for firefighters who have been working all week to save his home.
"We couldn't replace the memories. (The house) meant so much to us. It's a full house with everything, five bedrooms, furnished beautifully, TVs up and down. We can replace all that. Twelve years we've lived there since the Olympics. It means a lot to us and my family, my four children and 17 grandchildren. It's a very important place to us. It means a lot. I figured we'd go ahead and rebuild. We don't have to now," he said.
Likewise, the Berntsens lauded the fire crews.
"You have had people who have worked day and night and have looked so tired and they're just dragging and they're just working their hearts out trying to do the best they can," Sherri Berntsen said. "They are all heroes. They are not just doing what their job is. A lot of them are volunteers. To volunteer to risk your life and go through those horrific conditions, those are special people."
Berntsen said she was also thanking higher powers for saving her house.
"I guess you don't know why things happen the way they do, why some things are saved and some aren't. We just knew that (the animals) felt the need to come here, and they did and we were here for them," she said. "We watched them run down the mountain, and run down the hill and come here watching for their babies. What can you do but be there for them?"
Six to eight deputies and the fire marshal stopped by the Berntsens' house at different times during the week, encouraging them to leave, they said.
"Pretty much we're going to stay here as long as we can. We're ready to go, and when we see fire come over the ridge, we're out of here," Robert Berntsen told them. "We took all the provisions we had to, to evacuate at a moment's notice if we had to. We loaded our truck with what we thought were important things, which is kind of a hard decision when you don't have a lot of time. We just grabbed photographs, digital information, like that."
The Berntsens also said they didn't get any sleep as they constantly monitored the fire. There were three or four moments when they almost left.
"Part of our responsibility in making the choice to stay here is being ready to go, not putting anyone else in danger worrying about us. So we've lost a lot of sleep," Sherri Berntsen said.
"We didn't want to put any firefighters in danger trying to save us. They were aware we were here. In fact, the last day they actually put us under house arrest, pretty much. They didn't want us out. We can understand that. They were trying to do their dumps on the fire. We didn't want to interfere," her husband added.
One of the DC-10's fire retardant drops earlier in the week went right on their neighbor's property.3 comments on this story
State Route 32 from the Rockport Dam to the state park entrance was open Friday, but will be closed as needed when helicopters are used to help with fire suppression.
Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Bridge said there was a large high school rodeo happening in Oakley this weekend. He encouraged people going to that to use Brown's Canyon or state Route 248.
As for the Rockport Reservoir, Bridge said boats will not be allowed on the lake this weekend if the helicopters continue to fly.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero