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Geoff Liesik, Uintah Basin Standard
A burned-out van sits in front of the remains of a home in Uintah County. The fire flares in the rear.

NEOLA, Duchesne County — Federal disaster officials are expected to be on the scene today of the deadly North Neola Fire, which killed three men. Late Saturday, fire officials said they could not forecast when the eastern Utah wildfire might be contained.

Officials on Saturday released the names of the men who were killed in the blaze, which has consumed more than 20,000 acres between Neola and Whiterocks and destroyed at least a half-dozen homes.

Uintah County Sheriff Jeff Merrell said 63-year-old George Houston and his son, 43-year-old Tracy Houston, died Friday night when the fire caught them in a hay field in the Farm Creek area north of Whiterocks.

Tracy Houston's 11-year-old son escaped the flames after he was told by his father to run to the road, Merrell said. The boy led firefighters and law enforcement back to the scene of the deaths. He was taken to Uintah Basin Medical Center, where he was treated and released.

A third man, from whom the Houstons were buying hay, also died, the sheriff said. Roger Roberson, 75, suffered extensive burns and was taken to UBMC before being airlifted to a Wasatch Front hospital. He died of his injuries during the night.

The three men were attempting to hook up a sprinkler system to protect Roberson's farm, Merrell said.

The Farm Creek and Elkhorn Loop areas have been devastated by the fire, which started Friday about 9 a.m. alongside state Route 121 near Neola on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The BIA ordered evacuations of both areas, and the neighboring community of Whiterocks, after the wind shifted late Friday and began driving the fire into bone-dry stands of pinion-juniper and sagebrush.

Merrell said the evacuations were under way when the Houstons and Roberson were killed.

"A fire wall came over that hill," the sheriff said, pointing to an area west of the field where the men died. "The officers who were here said it just started sucking up all the air."

Whiterocks resident Edson Gardner witnessed the explosive nature of the fire as it came down the hill toward the hay field.

"It was like a herd of horses coming down the hill," Gardner said.

The evacuations displaced about 500 people, who are being housed at the Ute Indian Tribe's auditorium in Fort Duchesne and at Union High School in Roosevelt. Deputies from Uintah and Duchesne counties were working with search and rescue teams Saturday to conduct a house-to-house check for people who chose to stay behind, even as dry air began to breathe life back into the fire.

Weather was expected to play a major role in combating the blaze. The forecast for the next two days calls for temperatures in the high 90s, with no humidity and with shifting winds in the early evenings.

At a briefing Saturday morning at Neola Elementary School, fire crews were warned to remain aware of their surroundings, stay hydrated and to respond to what the fire does rather than what they expect it to do.

"It was alive yesterday, and it could very well do that again," Ute Indian Tribe Fire Management Officer Kirby Arrive told the assembled firefighters and support staff, referring to the extreme fire behavior witnessed Friday. "We've got a long day ahead of us."

Lucus Santio, the Type III incident commander with the Ashley National Forest who has been in charge of the North Neola Fire, said a specialized wildland fire team is converging on the Uinta Basin from across the Rocky Mountain region.

Santio and others were briefing members of the new team Saturday afternoon, a meeting attended by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The governor said he does not intend to have the state assume control of fighting the fire.

"We will leave this in the hands of the professionals," Huntsman told the group.

The governor has requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is expected to be on the scene today.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Public safety officials had said the blaze was started by a problem with a power line or transformer, but Moon Lake Electric Association CEO Grant Earl said utility workers have found nothing to support that claim.

"We don't see any evidence of a power line malfunction or a downed line," Earl said.

He noted there are no transformers in the area where the fire started.


Contributing: Craig Ashby


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