STOCKTON, Tooele County — Investigators say the fire that burned nearly 200 acres, evacuated homes and contaminated a town's water supply was arson.
Officials reported a man was in custody Wednesday night and cooperating with police after crews spent hours fighting the fire.
Timothy Devone West, 27, was booked into Tooele County Jail late Wednesday night. A search of court records revealed West pleaded guilty to two class A misdemeanor arson charges in Tooele County in 2010 and two class B misdemeanor arson charges in South Jordan in 2011.
West was identified in a joint investigation by the Stockton Police Department and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
"Oftentimes an arsonist might set more than one fire before they're caught," said Jason Curry, public information officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. "In this case, we wanted to be very thorough and cover everything and, of course, the result was an arrest."
The fire started near the small Tooele County town of Stockton about 2 p.m. Wednesday, and an aerial survey revealed it burned 179 acres — down from original estimates of as much as 500 acres. The fire was about 75 percent contained Wednesday night, the Bureau of Land Management reported.
Stockton is a town of about 615 people located 10 miles from Tooele on state Route 36.
Crews remained leery of wind and weather conditions, but about three hours after the fire began, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands spokesman Jason Curry reassured "it looks like the worst is over."
A reduced team was assigned to patrol the fire line overnight until crews returned in force Thursday morning, BLM spokeswoman Teresa Rigby reported. As many as 120 firefighters from multiple state and local agencies were on scene at the height of the blaze.
"We plan to hit it very hard tomorrow with seven engines, their crews and a hand crew," said Rigby, who expects firefighters will be on scene for several days. "We're not going to leave until this thing is done."
At least 50 firefighters are expected at the fire Thursday.
Many in the town considered themselves lucky Wednesday night.
"Everybody though that the whole town was gone up here, and we actually got pretty lucky," said resident Ben Cordova. "It's so dry out here that it goes fast."
The blaze came dangerously close to homes and destroyed a barn, an outbuilding and a structure that sits atop the town's water tank. The exterior of three homes was damaged by the fire but remained standing, Rigby said.
Power and telephone poles caught in the fire's path were also damaged, but crews hadn't been able to evaluate their condition Wednesday.
No homes were caught in the fire, but at its height, about 20 residences were evacuated, Whitney reported.
Occupants of 10 of those homes weren't allowed to return overnight out of concern that they sat within the fire line or in the fire's potential path, Rigby said.
"We know that conditions change at night here in Utah," she said.
Stockton resident Nicole Barnes is among those who weren't allowed to return home Wednesday. The news was especially painful, she said, because many items saved from a relative's fire-damaged home are currently in her house.
"Seeing this really hurt, and then hearing that we can't go up there, there's another kick in the gut," she said. "Knowing that things that we saved from one fire could be lost in another fire is terrifying."
Red Cross responders opened an LDS meetinghouse in Tooele at 253 S. 200 East for displaced residents.
In light of damage to the water tank, the Tooele County Health Department told Stockton residents not to use culinary water for any purpose until further notice.
The retardant used to fight the fire is salt-based rather than chemical, but residents were not allowed to drink or wash with the water until testing was done to ensure it isn't contaminated, said Stockton Mayor Mark Whitney. Water lines remained open for crews fighting the fire.1 comment on this story
Water was available for residents at an LDS meetinghouse, 405 N. Conner Ave., and at Stockton Town Hall.
Contributing: Andrew Adams