MODENA, Iron County — Firefighters were able to make headway Tuesday on the 5,000-plus White Rock Fire along the Utah-Nevada border despite heavy winds.
Those winds also fueled three other fires being battled in Utah. The early start to a busy fire season is prompting fire restrictions in several areas of the state.
As many as 325 firefighters were able to reach 20 percent containment on the 5,863-acre blaze, which had swelled to 8,000 acres Monday and claimed the lives of two firefighters.
Todd Tompkins, 48, and Ron Chambless, 40, both of Boise, were killed Sunday when the P2V heavy air tanker they were flying crashed shortly after 2 p.m. They had been dropping fire retardant on the fire when their airplane apparently "made contact with the ground," according to Neptune Aviation Services, which owned the tanker.
The company said Tompkins had "faithfully served" the company since 2006 and that it was Chambless' first year with the company. Both had extensive firefighting aviation experience.
“Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with all the family and friends of those impacted by this event," the company's CEO, Kristen Nicolarsen, said. "Todd and Ronnie were truly considered a part of our family and they will be deeply missed.”
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash site Tuesday and began scouring the 600-yard debris field for clues as to what may have caused the crash. Neptune temporarily grounded its fleet Monday to allow for a debrief of mechanics and crew members, but had later resumed operations.
The White Rock Fire was started by lightning near Caliente, Nev., on June 1 and spread into Utah Saturday. Firefighters are hoping for full containment by June 10.
• Strong winds hampered firefighting efforts on the Lost Lake Fire near Loa and propelled the blaze from six acres Monday to 500 acres Tuesday.
"We had high, sustained winds and that's the reason for the growth," John Zapell of Fishlake National Forest said. "With the way it's going, we haven't been able to get any crews in there."
He said there is no containment on the fire, but that firefighters were hopeful they could take on the blaze Wednesday, which may have milder winds. Meantime, Zapell said a closure of Donkey Reservoir Road, south along Forest Developed Road 521 to Donkey Reservoir, north along Wildcat Trail to the Bullberry drainage and northeast to Coleman Reservoir, remains in effect.
Zappell said fire personnel are also keeping their eye on homes to the east and small towns to the north of the fire.
"Nothing is really threatened at this time, but if we get some wind shifts and some problems that may change," he said.
• Elsewhere in the state, Uintah Basin Interagency Fire Center manager Cheryl Nelsen said wind has posed a big challenge in battling two lightning-caused fires that started Sunday near the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The Firewater Canyon Fire is burning at 150 acres and the Wildhorse Canyon Fire has reached 50 acres.
Both have "active fire behavior" and are burning in remote, rugged terrain, but neither were posing any threats to homes as of late Tuesday. Nelsen said as many as 40 fire personnel were working to contain the fires and no roads had been closed.
Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said this has already been a busy fire season, with multiple fires growing to more than 1,000 acres. High temperatures and wind are expected, but the relatively dry winter and spring have led to more concern.
"It’s the dry conditions that are going to be the most impacting ingredient for our fire season," Curry said. "So, larger fires, more extreme fire behavior, seeing things like fire whirls and major spot fires coming off of fires — we've seen that (and it's) just indicator of what we're expecting to come over the season."
Communities around the state are also cognizant of the threat. Farmington Fire Chief Guido Smith and his men were going door-to-door to talk to residents about restrictions the city is implementing.
"Obviously last year was a very wet year for us, which made it pleasant during the summer months," Smith said. "But because of the moisture, (there was) a lot of growth and a lot vegetation which has now turned into additional fuel. With the warm summer and the warm spring, the intensity of those fuel loads are significantly more than we typically see."
The city will only allow the use of fireworks in certain parks during the days they can be used and have implemented ordinances that will effect 800 homes located east of North Compton Road, 100 East, 350 East and 200 East and will also include Woodland Park.
"We're being proactive," Smith said. "We've put together orders and fire restrictions to prevent any unnecessary loss of life or property."
A map of Utah's could be considered a map of "don't do it." Restrictions on federal lands ban smoking, open fires and fireworks on the St. George side. A more complicated fire prevention order is in effect in southeastern Utah.
In the Salt Lake Valley, Salt Lake City says its restrictions should be released sometime in the next couple of weeks. City officials don't anticipate making many changes from last year.
Unified fire officials say they have no current plans to change restrictions, but reserve the right to make changes depending on how serious the fire threats become.
Contributing: Andrew Adams
E-mail: [email protected]