Evacuated homeowners return to charred mountain

Published: Monday, Aug. 19 2013 11:05 a.m. MDT

Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer talks with homeowners Wendy Gray and Sirja Paletta as property owners are allowed back into Lake Rockport Estates Monday, Aug. 19, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WANSHIP, Summit County — A charred hill was all that was left of the once-green area below Lake Rockport Ranches, a place now defined by the colors of fire season.

Eight homes in the area were burned, three homes within Rockport Ranches and five within Rockport Estates, some next door to homes that made it out unscathed.

On the other side of Kent Canyon sat dozens of homes firefighters had preserved, some surrounded by green vegetation. The hillside was peppered with green and black patches. Many of the treetops were tinted orange from retardant that had been dropped by helicopters.

A charred smell wafted in and out as more than 20 homeowners gathered outside the gate to Lake Rockport Estates to return home, just before 9 a.m. Monday.

Members of the community could be seen embracing each other or exchanging high-five handshakes as they waited for the chain-link gate to slide open.

"I think this is going to bring us together. It's going to pull us together," Rockport homeowner Siraj Paletta said.

Two weeks ago, Paletta knew few of her neighbors. She commutes from Wanship to Salt Lake City for work, so she never saw much of them. For the most part, Paletta would see them on her way to and from the community Dumpster.

Since the fire, the community is already planning gatherings and creating a telephone chain for future emergencies.

Before the fire hit, Paletta cleared three truckloads full of brush from her property. Calling it a premonition, she said she knew she needed to get it clear.

As fire swept through the area, she joined neighbors near the Dumpsters that lay inside the gates to the community to watch the progress of the fire. They saw the flames racing away from their homes and thought their homes were out of harm's way.

"And then the winds changed," Paletta said.

The worst part was not knowing how her home and her neighbors' homes were faring, she said.

Paletta sighed as she recounted what was going through her mind when she found out she would need to evacuate.

"This just can't be real," she recalled thinking. "This just can't be happening."

This was her dream home. Paletta moved from Vermont to Utah after spending some time in the state as a ski instructor.

"Utah grows on you," she said.

Paletta said she loved the view from her home and enjoyed the openness of the outdoors.

"The house can be rebuilt," she told herself. When she evacuated, all of her family pictures stayed behind. If the fire got her house, she wanted a fresh start.

A ski buddy from nearby Bridge Hollow found a family to host Paletta and her four cats.

"By Tuesday night they had taken me and my cat family in," she said, noting that she had a private room, bathroom and kitchen at her disposal.

On Tuesday, Andy Varner was on Rockport Reservoir with a neighbor when he saw lightning strike a power pole. By the time they got back to the marina, the fire had spread. He rushed to grab his dog and cat.

Firefighters, most of whom were volunteers, will be on scene through the week in case homeowners see smoke or have other concerns, said Bryce Boyer, Rockport Fire incident commander and Summit County Fire District warden.

Although it was safe for homeowners to return, "there's still some risk," Boyer said, which is why crews will remain on hand.

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