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SARATOGA SPRINGS — At the corner of Stetson Avenue and Clydesdale Road in Saratoga Springs, residents returning to their homes Saturday evening for the first time in a day and a half used words like "crazy" and "insane."
Those reactions were expressed as they saw the charred landscape and realized just how dangerously close the fire came to their homes. The Dump Fire, as it was called, came within 20 feet of three homes under construction, and between 20 and 50 yards of homes that were occupied.
Late Saturday afternoon, all evacuation orders for Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain that had been implemented Friday because of the fast-moving wildfire were lifted. Although the fire danger has passed, officials warned there would still be Red Flag warning conditions for the next several days and smoke and ash may still linger through the neighborhoods for a while.
As residents started returning to their homes, many couldn't believe what they saw.
"It's scary. I'm grateful, though, for all the hard work the firemen did," said Marji McAdams, who was one of the first to be evacuated from the Saratoga Hills subdivision.
"It looks like a barren, black landscape — like something out of a science fiction movie," added resident Kent Langston as he overlooked the burned area.
Firefighters protected all houses in the area, and despite the reported loss of more than two dozen power poles, city officials said all residents should have had power when they returned home.
Residents expressed their approval when Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love and Eagle Mountain Mayor Heather Jackson announced about 5 p.m. that the mandatory evacuation had been lifted.
"At this point, everyone is able to go home," Love said.
Fire, local government officials and police all met earlier to decide whether it was safe to let the families return to their homes.
"We certainly didn't want to let people go home and then a few hours later say, 'I'm sorry you have to leave your home again.' There's a very good chance you won't have to do that again," Love said.
But Jackson also warned residents to keep their guard up for a few days.
"You need to be prepared and still be on alert. So please don't go unpacking everything and get snuggled in per se," she said.
Jason Curry with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Land said crews worked the north border of the fire — the area where all the homes are — all day Saturday and were confident Saturday evening that homeowners were out of danger.
But while the fire danger had passed, the health risks from smoke and ash remained. Evacuated residents gathered at Westlake High School were warned not to exercise outdoors for a few days.
"I'm worried about the smoke, especially worried about smoke damage or if it filtered throughout the house, so we'll go check it out," Tricia Roberts said just before entering her home in the Saratoga Hills neighborhood.
A thick haze and strong winds still hovered over most of the formerly evacuated areas Saturday afternoon.
Sarah Peterson said the first thing she was going to do when she got home was, "Let our dogs out and take care of anything that smells like smoke."
"I think there's just a big sigh of relief," she said about returning home.
Another woman said she would be cautious over the next few days because of the smoke, but had faith in city leaders that they "know what they're talking about" when they said residents could return.
Curry said even under a best case scenario, he predicted crews would still be working to extinguish the fire for the next four to five days.
One of the biggest remaining concerns were communications towers on top of Lake Mountain. The towers play critical roles for agencies such as the Salt Lake City International Airport and local law enforcement agencies for communication, he said. Those structures were definitely not out of the woods, Curry said.
The Dump Fire grew from 4,100 acres Friday night to 6,023 acres Saturday afternoon.
"We made good progress last night," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kim Osborn said Saturday. "Crews were up all night."
Strong winds had pushed the unpredictable fire to the west overnight — something officials weren't expecting.
Steven Aboagye was one of the last to leave his Saratoga Springs subdivision. He watched Friday as the fire became so large that it burned several directions at once, creating havoc for firefighters.
"It was so intense," he said of the heat from the fire. "It was very close. I was worried about losing homes. We're extremely grateful we didn't lose anything."
When asked about the lingering smell of smoke for the next few days, Aboagye said, "I think we'll take that," as opposed to the alternative of having his house burn.
The fire remained 30 percent contained, but new estimates were expected to be released either late Saturday or early Sunday. While officials had said 1,500 homes had been evacuated, the officials number was downgraded Saturday to less than 600, including about 400 in Saratoga Springs and 200 in Eagle Mountain.
Most evacuated residents spent Friday night with friends and family. Only 13 people slept overnight at the shelter at Westlake High School, according to the Red Cross. But Saturday morning, many residents returned the shelter, hoping to learn the latest information.
"Yesterday there was a whole bunch of smoke and I could see why they'd kick you out. But today the smoke is gone. I don't know why they're holding us out. But I'm sure they're doing it for safety," Dennis Peterson said Saturday morning. Peterson's home was one of the first evacuated Friday morning. He and his wife spent the night with family members in Highland.
Officials pounded on the Petersons' door Friday and told them there was a mandatory evacuation. They grabbed their 72-hour kits, a few clothes and personal items and were gone in 15 minutes.
"(The fire) was pretty close, it was very smoky when we left. So we knew we needed to get out," Nancy Peterson said. "We're good (today). We're going to be alright.
"We can see our house area from where we're at, and everything looks good."
Inside the high school, the Red Cross also set up a fire information area for residents, including maps to show them the area that was evacuated, where the fire was burning and how much of the fire was contained.
"We're very anxious to get back (home)," said Kevin Sater, who spent the night in a hotel in Provo. Police came to his home about 10:30 a.m. Friday and told him and his wife they had to leave.
"We packed really fast.The conditions were just changing really fast. I mean, the neighborhood just filled with smoke and ash within 30 minutes, so we packed really fast and got out," he said.
Kami Wendel said she was ordered to evacuate about 11 a.m. Friday.
"They just said, 'This is a mandatory evacuation. You have a few minutes to get your stuff and get out.' We just got stuff to sleep overnight and headed out," she said.
Wendel, her husband and their five boys stayed with relatives overnight.
"You could see flames, but our house is kind of at the bottom of the subdivision," Wendel said. "There was a little bit of stress with the explosion plant, that was a little stressful, but I felt our house would be OK."
Fire officials said about 3 p.m. is traditionally when fire conditions can be the worst. As predicted, the wind kicked up between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday. But Curry said the fire lines built that day held. They avoided what's known in the fire community as a "Swiss cheese model" — a worst case scenario where the temperature, wind, humidity and dry fuels all line up to figuratively form a giant hole for those fighting the fire to fall into.
A Red Flag warning has been issued for the area through Sunday, according to fire officials, meaning high winds and high temperatures are predicted. Meteorologists have predicted temperatures may hit 100 degrees again Sunday in some areas along the Wasatch Front.
Osborn said fire crews also battled Saturday to keep the Dump Fire from spreading to the nearby Israel Canyon area, a region that has not had a wildfire in 100 years, she said.
"There's a lot of natural resources there," Osborn said.
The Dump Fire was started about 11:30 a.m. Thursday by a target shooter. The fire was less than 800 acres Friday morning, but exhibited "explosive behavior" because of strong winds Friday and it more than quadrupled in size.
About 300 personnel battled the blaze Saturday — including 10 hand crews, consisting of about 20 firefighters per crew, working the containment lines. Three helicopters, 17 engines and four water-feeders, which supply water to the engines and wet the roads down, were assisting in the efforts.
The Dump Fire received its name because it started near the Saratoga Springs city landfill.
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