NEOLA, Duchesne County Residents of the small community of White Rocks warily returned to their homes Monday, even as an estimated 400 firefighters continued to battle a raging wildfire.
Although fire officials initially said the Neola North Fire had grown to consume nearly 33,000 acres, that estimate was later retracted.The fire remains at 30,500 acres and only 5 percent of it has been contained.
Meanwhile, members of the Utah National Guard were assuming their posts at a variety of checkpoints in support of local law enforcement.
Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team Commander Kim Martin said "excellent progress" was made on the fire's south and east flanks Sunday.
Eight helicopters, four heavy air tankers and two single-engine air tankers were used Sunday to fight the blaze, which by Sunday afternoon was stretching into the Ashley National Forest, sending up clouds of black smoke as it burned fir trees and other beetle-infested dead timber. About 100 members of the Utah National Guard were called up late Sunday by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to provide support to law enforcement at selected road-closure checkpoints and campground evacuation sites in threatened areas.
Ground crews were expected to work through the night Sunday setting up a containment line.
Martin would not answer questions Sunday afternoon regarding what sparked the fire, only to say it was "still under investigation."
The fire started about 9:30 a.m. Friday approximately four miles north of Neola on public Ute tribal lands. The fire, according to witnesses, started at the base of a power pole. Originally, there were reports a downed line may have sparked the blaze, but Moon Lake Electric Association said Saturday they had no reports of a malfunctioning line.
Jeremiah Warren was working at a welding shop about a mile away when the fire started. He said he and a friend rushed toward it when it was only a quarter of an acre or less. Warren said he and his friend offered to use bulldozers from their business to help put the fire out. Pictures taken by Warren show the fire in its initial stages, and it appeared to be manageable.
But Warren said he was stopped by a tribal member who apparently thought the fire would burn itself out.
"He pretty much shut us down," he said.
As Warren was driving away from the fire, he passed a fire truck about five minutes later. But by that time it was too late.
"I feel a little guilty about it ... could have stopped it and saved some lives," he said.
That rapidly moving fire claimed the lives of George Houston, 63; his son, 43-year-old Tracy Houston; and 75-year-old Roger Roberson. Tracy's son, 11-year-old Duane, survived the fire by running through thick smoke and by jumping two fences, including a barbed-wire fence, before a firefighter found him.
Sunday, members of the Houston family were escorted by Uintah County and fire officials to the area where the tragedy occurred for the first time so they could get a sense of what happened.
Before they left, Margie Houston, George's widow; JaLynn Houston, Tracy Houston's widow; and Duane shared memories with the Deseret Morning News of their loved ones, and recounted what happened that day.
Duane Houston said they had already purchased the hay and had actually started to drive back when they noticed Roberson trying to move his sprinkler system to prepare for what then looked like a manageable fire. The two men and young boy got out of their truck and went to help, but a sudden burst of wind made the fire explode over the hillside and pushed it straight toward them.
The wind was blowing hay into Duane's face so hard he could barely see, he said. As the fire got closer, his father told him to run toward the truck. Duane, however, became disoriented in the thick smoke and blowing hay and ran right past the truck but kept running "as fast as I could go," until he knew he was safe.
"It felt like a mile," he said.
Houston said he looked back a couple of times to see if the others were behind him but saw nothing.
"I don't think my dad would have left my grandpa," he said.
JaLynn Houston agreed that Tracy could have easily run as fast as Duane and gotten away from the fire but chose instead to stay with George, who suffered from back problems and was not able to move as fast.
The Houstons lived close together on a 65-acre piece of property called Houston Ranch in Neola. George took care of about 30 cattle on his ranch and 40 sheep. He had four children and 19 grandchildren. Tracy left behind five daughters and Duane, his only son. The daughters range in age from 11 to 19.
George Houston spent 41 years with the U.S. Forest Service and was very experienced around fires, said Margie. No one could have predicted how fast the fire "exploded," she said. If George and Tracy had known how much speed the fire would gain, "he would have been out of there. He would not have stayed."
By the time the first firefighters arrived, Margie Houston said the inferno was already past containment.
"They said it was out of control from the time they got there," she said.
Margie said she could see from her porch how fast the fire progressed. It was when JaLynn received a call from police that Duane had been picked up on the road that they knew there was trouble. Margie and JaLynn drove to the area where the fire started and were stopped by a roadblock. While talking with a person at the roadblock whom they knew, a message was sent over his radio that there were four victims and two of them were dead.
Margie said she knew immediately those victims were Tracy and George. Roberson was flown to a local hospital but died a short time later. A Fish and Wildfire officer reportedly also suffered minor burn injuries after reaching the bodies of the Houstons and pulling them out.
Margie and JaLynn said their husbands would be remembered as men who loved their families, loved the outdoors, their church and their community.
"Everything he did was for us," JaLynn said while fighting back tears.
Tracy Houston worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Between work and family, JaLynn said what stood out about her husband was "his dedication to everything he did. He gave it 100 percent."
The towns of White Rocks and Farm Creek remained evacuated Sunday, totaling about 500 residents. The majority of White Creek residents are members of the Ute Indian Tribe. About 40 people sought shelter at the Fort Duchesne Recreation Center. Others were able to stay with relatives. Some pitched tents at a Fourth of July Powwow celebration happening in Fort Duchesne.
Officials announced late Sunday that the White Rocks community could return to their homes at 8 a.m. today. The residents who live in the area north of White Rocks about 16 homes were to be escorted to their homes late Sunday to retrieve perishable goods, and today Farm Creek residents will be allowed in to get perishable goods. Officials say those areas remain extremely hazardous because of downed power lines and other threats. About five homes have been determined destroyed by the fire, but that number is expected to rise.
Although Uintah County Commissioner Rod Harris described the fire Sunday evening as still being "very explosive and dangerous," Martin said at this point they considered the community of White Rocks as "being safe" from the fire and hoped to have news soon about when residents might be able to return to their homes.
Federal officials said that a Girl Scout recreation camp and 150 homes near Dryfork Canyon were also threatened by flames.
The Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team called the Neola North Fire the "number one priority" in Utah for firefighters right now. Early estimates of the cost to fight the fire was $300,000, a figure that was expected to be much higher in the coming days.Up to 75 percent of that figure will be paid by funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to a press release from the agency issued on Sunday. The money will be provided via fire management assistance grants and could be used to pay for equipment use, mobilization and demobilization, materials, supplies and field camps.