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Evacuated homeowners return to charred mountain

Published: Monday, Aug. 19 2013 2:58 p.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) 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.

Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer talks to the media prior to homeowners in the Lake Rockport Estates being allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer talks to the media prior to homeowners in the Lake Rockport Estates being allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

"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.

Homeowner Siraj Paletta talks with mountain neighbor Susan Cronin as the owners in Rockport Estates are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Homeowner Siraj Paletta talks with mountain neighbor Susan Cronin as the owners in Rockport Estates are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

"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.

Homeowners Sirja Paletta and Wendy Gray talk with Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer and North Summit Fire District fire Chief Ken Smith as owners are allowed back into in the Lake Rockport Estates Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Homeowners Sirja Paletta and Wendy Gray talk with Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer and North Summit Fire District fire Chief Ken Smith as owners are allowed back into in the Lake Rockport Estates Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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.

Lake Rockport Estates ranch manager Allan Lindsley points out areas as homeowners in the neighborhood are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Lake Rockport Estates ranch manager Allan Lindsley points out areas as homeowners in the neighborhood are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Workers from the Utah Department of Health and public information officers left Ziploc bags containing information for returning evacuees on the doors of each home in the area.

Each residence was tagged with one of three colors. Green meant there were no limitations for using or living in the home. Houses tagged yellow had some exterior damage, but were still habitable. Red tagged homes were those that were destroyed.

Resident Wendy Gray felt a sense of gratitude, not only for the other residents, but to the firefighters who were able to save so many homes. She teared up as she thanked Ken Smith, North Summit County Fire Department chief.

"Right now I'm just filled with gratitude for the firefighters," Gray later said.

Susan Cronin and Siraj Paletta stand with a neighbor as they wait to get back to their homes as homeowners in Lake Rockport Estates are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Susan Cronin and Siraj Paletta stand with a neighbor as they wait to get back to their homes as homeowners in Lake Rockport Estates are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Returning home was bittersweet for her, because some neighbors lost their homes.

"You can't come back to the mountain without them being at the very forefront of your thoughts," Gray said.

Looking over the charred hillside and homes that had burned down to their foundation, Alan Lindsley, Lake Rockport Estates manager, pointed to a property with a charred perimeter surrounding it and said its defensible space saved it from the flames. A fire truck was sitting in the driveway, but firefighters sat on the hood as the blaze extinguished itself upon hitting defensible space.

The opposite side of the mountain reminded Lindsley of the moon. Rocks and charred tree remnants stuck out from the burnt surface.

Homeowners in Lake Rockport Estates are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Homeowners in Lake Rockport Estates are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

A few homes were surrounded by foliage and lacked defensible space. They were spared because of the firefighters' intervention, Lindsley said.

Firefighters worked against winds and an 80-foot-high firewall to save homes. The wind caused the fire to jump, he said, making it hard to predict and combat.

Residents called Lindsley to have him thank the firefighters who saved their home, he said, but he never knew who to thank because it was a group effort. Thanks to their work, most of the homes were saved.

"Losing anything is sad, but at one time it looked like we were going to lose everything," Lindsley said.

Ultimately, Paletta's home was not damaged in the fire. Outside her home Monday morning, still holding a bag of bread, she hugged a neighbor who had stopped their truck to chat.

Homeowners in Lake Rockport Estates are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Homeowners in Lake Rockport Estates are allowed back into their homes Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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