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Jennifer Ackerman, Deseret Morning News
Mike Okelberry watches the fire approach the Holiday Oaks area.

FOUNTAIN GREEN — The flames snaked across the hillsides, pushed closer and closer to this town by winds that whipped all around.

An airplane circled over a ranch house, surrounded by golden fields threatened by the fast-approaching fire. The plane turned, dived and then lifted up again. Behind it, a heavy air tanker repeated the same pattern.

The engines of the gigantic plane roared as it turned and then dived, dropping lines of bright red fire retardant around the pristine white home in an effort to save it.

Ash from the fire mixed with a few scattered raindrops on Sunday night as firefighters rushed along state Route 132 toward the home. In a caravan of engines and trucks, they turned onto a dirt road and raced toward the hills.

A short time later, a line of small flames was seen at the bottom of the foothills. In minutes, the flames were 30 feet high, charging up the slope and meeting the wildfire.

Firefighters set the backfires in an attempt to burn out the dry fuels and protect this central Utah town from being evacuated.

"They have a perfect opportunity to do this burn now," the U.S. Forest Service's Terry Krasko said as he watched firefighters set the series of backburns.

The Salt Creek fire continues to rage through Nephi Canyon, only 15 percent contained. So far, it has burned more than 18,502 acres. Heavy rain was reported in Sanpete County Sunday night.

Evacuees still out

Besides Fountain Green, Indianola remained threatened. The country subdivisions of Holiday Oaks, Elk Ridge and Oaker Hills have been evacuated.

"It's pretty scary," said Carol Coleson, who was evacuated from the Oaker Hills subdivision Saturday night.

As the flames marched closer, Coleson and her husband took their trailer, as well as those of friends and family, to safety. A short distance away, a pair of Sanpete County Sheriff's deputies manned a roadblock to the area.

Fire crews and deputies had closed off another road near Indianola as they prepared for the fire to turn toward the Sanpete town.

"Hopefully, they'll be able to stop it before it gets to our property," Coleson said.

Firefighting efforts

Firefighters have struggled with the Salt Creek fire. Extremely dry fuels, high temperatures, low humidity and wind gusts up to 50 mph have fought them every step of the way.

Firefighting resources have also been scarce.

"We're extremely short on resources," said Dandy Pollock, a firefighter from Beaver. "I understand more has been ordered up."

He worked a bulldozer to create fire lines in the sometimes treacherous canyon terrain on Sunday. A combination of complex topography and ever-changing wind patterns have made it difficult to predict where the fire will spread.

Firefighters got a little bit of relief Sunday when scattered thunderstorms dropped rain in some spots. Along parts of state Route 132, the sweet smell of rain and sage mingled with the dry smell of burned ground along Nephi Canyon.

"We got God's help today," Pollock said of the storms.

Other areas of the canyon were not even touched by the rain. The ground and hills alongside the road, which remains closed, are blackened with spots of grey ash.

The weather forecast for today is calling for more thunderstorms moving across the state, bringing a chance for heavy rainfall in spots. The National Weather Service said those storms could continue for the rest of the week.

While it is good news, firefighters fear it could bring lightning and spark more wildfires in these tinderbox dry conditions.

Inspecting the damage

On Sunday, some people were allowed to return to some of the evacuated areas in Nephi Canyon and retrieve a few belongings. Then fire officials made them get out again.

Mike Okelberry and his wife, Jyll, had purchased a stake in the Camperworld campground in Nephi Canyon on Wednesday. The fire started on Thursday, burning a portion of the campground.

"Oh, please get it out!" Jyll Okelberry said to herself as she watched an air tanker make drops near Holiday Oaks, where they also have property. "It's too much. Too many memories."

The fire has cost nearly $1 million to fight so far, authorities estimate. Some ranchers have lost livestock. A pair of residences and as many as six outbuildings have burned.

Others are totaling the damage to their property from the fire.

Marvin and Martha Frame had set up their Winnebago at a Nephi RV campground, waiting for an insurance adjustor to look at the damage.

On the front of the behemoth vehicle, the paint had blistered in spots from the heat of the fire, which came within 25 feet of their motor home. Their awnings had holes where hot embers burned through. Inside, there was smoke damage.

"We're getting it aired out. We've got a lot of air fresheners in there," Martha Frame said, walking over to pet her two Pomeranian dogs, Mitzi and MJ.

The dogs yipped and panted in the summer heat.

Still, the couple and their son, David, considered themselves lucky. They didn't lose their home like some of the others.

Marvin Frame pointed to the sky.

"We're thanking the man upstairs," he said.


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