HERRIMAN — Admitting a communication breakdown within its organization, the Utah National Guard acknowledged Monday it should not have been conducting a live-fire training exercise Sunday that accidentally sparked a fast-moving wildfire that leveled three homes and damaged a fourth.
"We shot in the face of a Red Flag Warning. We had a communication error (Sunday). We should have been aware of it. Had we known that was in place, we would not have shot," said Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, commander of the Utah National Guard, referring to artillery training exercises at Camp Williams.
The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning early Sunday, meaning hot and windy conditions that could spark a wildfire were likely.
"Our mission is to support our citizens, not to endanger them. We failed in that yesterday," he said. "We shot when we should have known about the warning."
Tarbet said there was a miscommunication between his people who should have been monitoring weather conditions. He said crews did not learn of the Red Flag Warning until about 1:30 p.m. Sunday, about the same time the fire started. The warning was issued about 2:40 a.m. Sunday.
"We try to get this right. ... We were a little bit short (Sunday) of where we needed to be," Tarbet said. "It's a specific failure on our part, and it needs to be fixed."
Fires on Camp Williams' training range, whether they are caused by munitions or lightning, are not uncommon. The area where the fire started is in an area where there are unexploded live munitions.
"I can't have soldiers and firefighters go out and walk that ground," he said.
There is still a mile of land between the base and Herriman City, where the base has traditionally been able to put fires out in the past, Tarbet said. Sunday's fire, however, took off because of exceptionally strong winds. He estimated the fire was moving at one point between 20 to 25 mph.
Yet, officials are concerned Tuesday could have just as bad winds as Sunday's fast-moving flames.
Evacuations, which reached more than 1,200 Sunday night, had been scaled back to just 450 homes still evacuated Monday night, and officials said they were waiting to assess Tuesday morning's high winds and how the lingering fire just 25 percent contained would react.
"We expect the same type of weather conditions that we had Sunday," said Unified Fire Authority Chief Michael Jensen. "We don't want to let people back on just to kick them back out again."
As of Monday night, about 450 homes in the High Country Estates Subdivisions 1 and 2 remained evacuated but relatively secure from the fire. If high winds turned the fire either east or west on Tuesday, the fire could affect several homes near the mountaintop in the Arnold Canyon area, Scott Bushman with the U.S. Forest Service said.
"There are several structures up there," Bushman explained at a media event outside the command post in Herriman at 8 p.m. Monday. "The fire was fairly quiet (Monday), but we're real nervous for tomorrow. High winds are predicated, and there's a lot of heat up there."
National Weather Service forecasters confirmed high southerly winds with dry conditions would start at 15-20 mph earlier Tuesday and reach up to 30-40 mph by late afternoon — similar to weather on Sunday when the fire got out of control.
Officials planned to add about 200 crew members to keep any fire back and monitor those "echo" areas, where 450 homes remained in danger.
There is no cost estimate on the damaged and destroyed homes or on how much it cost to fund this firefighting operation, but Bushman said it's easily in the "six-figure range" if not more.
"This was an extraordinary event. In our memory, we have not seen a fire move that quickly," Tarbet said Monday. "It was a tough fire, a nasty fire."
Gov. Gary Herbert said when he spoke to Tarbet earlier Monday, the situation appeared different. "This needs to be reviewed. We need to make sure the processes are in place that give us the appropriate outcomes.
"There's no excuse, whatever their parameters are, that they did not get this warning," Herbert said. "Obviously, they made a mistake that needs to be corrected. So it's not acceptable."
As for homeowners who were affected by the fire, Tarbet apologized.
"We say we're sorry, deeply sorry. These are the citizens we're sworn to protect, and we did not do that Sunday," he said.
Many of those homeowners returned Monday afternoon after the evacuation order was lifted for about 200 homes, including the area where three homes were destroyed.
About 30 people were expected to take advantage of an emergency shelter set up by the Greater Salt Lake chapter of the American Red Cross. The shelter was moved Monday evening from Herriman High School to an LDS Church meetinghouse at 4501 W. 11800 South.
Val Johnson, 67, built his home and a barn on his 10 acres of property in the early 1970s, making him one of the first residents in the area. Johnson was camping in southern Utah when the fire started. He returned Monday to find only his chimney standing among the charred remains of his house.
Johnson has a hobby of restoring old vehicles. Also lost in the fire were 1936 and 1930 Fords, both completely restored, in addition to a 1938 tractor. But what hurts more than losing his vintage hot rods, is losing his passport and the plane tickets he had purchased to go to his daughter's wedding in Spain in just a few weeks.
Johnson's son, Doug Phillips, was sitting down to watch football Sunday night when heard about evacuations in the area. He raced to his father's home only to learn he had just 10 to 15 minutes to grab what he could and leave.
"They said, 'It's comin', you gotta go,' " Phillips said. "I knew it was go, go, go. I didn't think (the fire) would be that fast."
Phillips and his family immediately went for the cars. They were able to save a 1932 Chevy Coup, a backhoe and an RV. But just as they were trying to jump-start the other vintage cars, they knew it was time to flee.
The fire came up so fast that Phillips said the firefighters who were trying to protect their house had to just drop their firehose and run themselves. When Johnson went back to the house Monday afternoon, there were still fire hoses laying on the property, waiting to be collected.
"It's surreal for sure," Johnson said while surveying the damage. "I don't know how to put it into words."
Just down the road from the Johnsons' property, Jessey Hansen's home, where she's lived for 12 years, was spared. "I feel bad for the owner," she said.
Hansen, along with other families, evacuated to the Butterfield Park Rodeo grounds, spending the night in their cars while watching the fire speed down the mountain.
"It scared the crap out of me. It kept flaring up. It's like, I can't watch it anymore. It's messing with me," she said.
She was thankful for the efforts of firefighters.
"I'm totally going to make them cookies," she said.
Cory Hamre also slept in his car in the rodeo grounds as he watched the fire consume Phillips' home uphill from him.
"As soon as that cabin caught fire, our percentages (of keeping our house) dropped quite a bit," he said.
Hamre calls his family "one of the lucky ones" for escaping unscathed.
"Just a big sigh of relief," was his initial reaction upon returning home. "I kind of patted the door, made sure it was real."
On Log Home Lane, a home destroyed by the fire was still smoldering Monday. Everything on the property was also destroyed, including several vehicles and a windmill.
Just across the street from that house, four vacant homes under construction were untouched.
"It's still not hitting me. I'm thinking my friend ... she's lived here for 34 years, and all these new houses (were untouched)," said Theresa Husarik as she overlooked the home on Log Cabin Way. "How can you reconcile that? I don't know what I'm thinking."
"Wildfire kind of picks and chooses who it likes and who it doesn't like," Jensen said. "There's no rhyme or reason to what it does or how it operates."
Because of hot spots, fire officials say evacuated residents may not be allowed back into their homes until midday Tuesday.
Even though three homes were lost, officials admitted Monday they expected the damage to be much worse. Herbert said as he surveyed the situation Sunday night, he expected up to 100 homes to be gone by Monday.
"I thought we'd have a lot more damage than we found today," Herbert said after surveying the area by helicopter Monday morning. "It's remarkable. In fact, it's a miracle."
In addition to the three houses, an unknown number of outbuildings, such as sheds and water pumps, were also destroyed in the huge blaze.
And while investigators said Monday morning that the fire had grown to 10,000 acres, Forest Service officials reduced that figure to 4,346 acres by Monday evening. The fire was 25 percent contained by about 8 p.m.
One of the biggest problems officials were facing Monday, in addition to the fire, was trying to keep anxious residents out of the evacuated areas and explaining to some why they still couldn't go back home.
The last thing officials wanted, said Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, was to let residents back in only to have to evacuate them again.
Frustrated residents wanted to get back into their homes to either get medicine, check on something important or just to see in general if their home was still standing.
Herriman City posted a map of the areas that had been affected by the fire on both its website and its Twitter account, which they have used extensively since Sunday. The city announced Monday all schools in the Jordan District would be opened for classes Tuesday, and Herriman High School would be open Tuesday for a B day.
Another problem was looters, and Winder had a stern warning for them.
He said one person was detained at gunpoint by a nonevacuated homeowner about 3:40 a.m. Monday. Nearby officers heard the commotion and ran to see what was happening before the homeowner even called for help. The man was taken into custody for questioning. Winder said whether the man was simply a spectator or an actual burglar would need to be determined before official charges are filed.
But he warned other potential looters that there will be increased police presence around the evacuated area throughout Monday night.
"We're taking it doggone seriously," Winder said. "If anyone is caught in this area, we will arrest them. ... Stay out of the area, and that means everybody."
Doug Phillips said when he returned to his father's property Monday afternoon, there was already a woman with her son milling around the rubble. He told her to leave.
Throughout the afternoon, the Johnson and Phillip families had to turn away cars of spectators looking to see what damage the fire had caused. Some, including entire families in minivans, drove up the Johnson driveway while they were being interviewed by police.
As for homeowners who refused to evacuate, Winder said they won't be arrested. "It's more of a common sense issue than a legal issue," he said. "This is not a game."
Jensen said he was "cautiously optimistic" about getting complete control of the fire by Monday night. But he stressed it all depended on the weather.
"Last night was one of the worst nights of my lifetime," said Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, who was separated from his family after they were evacuated from their home Sunday. "This morning is one of the brightest mornings I've had in my lifetime."
Jensen said a group of bulldozers that were brought in Sunday night to establish fire lines made a "tremendous difference."
"It's truly remarkable we lost only (three) homes," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who was on hand Monday.
Wimmer praised the efforts of firefighters, calling them "the finest group of firefighters in the world."
"We saw literally the earth around the homes was completely scorched," he recounted of some of the heroic efforts to save structures.
An estimated 150 firefighters, 100 police officers and 124 National Guard troops helped battle the blaze.
"Literally every single fire agency in the valley sent people," Jensen said. "We couldn't have done it by ourselves."
Two firefighters and three police officers suffered minor injuries either while fighting the fire or trying to prevent evacuated residents from getting past the established road blocks. All were in good condition Monday.
Contributing: Joseph M. Dougherty, Lisa Riley Roche, Lana Groves
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