ELK RIDGE, Sanpete County — James Martin, the lone victim of the Wood Hollow Fire that burned through 75 square miles of wooded mountain land in Sanpete County, was a bit of a misfit who probably didn’t realize he was in grave danger until it was too late, his friend David Joseph said.
Joseph, who had to evacuate from his own house in Herriman during the recent fire there, described Martin, whom he has known since they both attended Granite High School together, as a “really smart guy” with a “great sense of humor” who was also a free spirit.
Martin, 60, who ran a security company, had parked his trailer on Joseph’s vacant lot in the Elk Ridge development in the wooded hills near the tiny town of Indianola in northern Sanpete County a few weeks before the fire swept through and literally incinerated 52 residences.
The fire wasn’t fully contained until July 2.
Joseph said he heard from Martin’s sister, Pat, who lives in Salt Lake City, that Martin died in his Geo Tracker on the property, and that he hadn’t even had time to put the keys in the ignition.
Officials informed Pat Martin that her brother had probably died about 11 a.m. on June 26. That means that James Martin must have survived the first firestorm that raced through Elk Ridge and nearby subdivisions on June 24.
Joseph said he was with Martin at his Elk Ridge lot on the evening of Saturday, June 23. Both men could see smoke rising from the fire near Fountain Green, several miles to the west. Martin said he didn’t think it would reach Elk Ridge. Joseph returned to Herriman before the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office ordered an evacuation of the area just before midnight.
Joseph said he had heard from officials that Martin had disobeyed the order, although the first front apparently missed the property. However, the blaze exploded again with an incoming cold front on Tuesday, June 26, briefly forcing the evacuation of Fairview, a few miles south of Elk Ridge, and Birdseye, on the southern edge of Utah County.
Joseph speculates that Martin may have felt “things had died down and he would be OK.” He said that might explain why Martin didn’t even have his truck hooked up to his trailer.
The property was at the edge of a draw filled with juniper, some of which “were 20 or 30 feet tall,” Joseph said. “I can imagine the flames would easily reach 100 feet coming up the ravine below the lot.”
If the flame front was moving anywhere near as fast coming toward the lot where Martin was parked as it was sweeping toward Fairview on Tuesday, Martin would have had little time to react.
Lamont Christensen, a horse rancher who witnessed the flames advancing near Fairview that Tuesday, said they were moving “faster than you could drive a pickup.” He opened the gate to let his horses free before fleeing himself, but a dozen of the horses couldn’t outrun the fire and died.
Joseph said he and Martin had kept in touch on and off since they were teenagers. Joseph has been married for 35 years, but Martin remained “a confirmed bachelor.”
“He had girlfriends but the relationships didn’t last. I asked him once why he didn’t marry and raise a family. He said, ‘Why would I want to add more dysfunctional people to the world?’”
But Joseph said Martin wasn’t so much dysfunctional as unmotivated by the things most people seek, like money, companionship and a permanent home.
The sheriff's office has said it believes it has identified the person who died in the fire, but no name has been released. "ME (medical examiner) states DNA is being used to concretely ID the victim. This will take some time," a tweet from the sheriff's office said.
Joseph said he and Martin’s sister are puzzled why authorities are conducting such an extensive investigation to confirm that the man who died in James Martin’s Geo Tracker near James Martin’s trailer was indeed James Martin.
He had been told the investigation might take months.
“When I first heard that, I thought, ‘What? Why?’ Who else could it have been?” he said.
He figured if Martin had survived, he would have been in contact with him or Pat Martin.
Joseph said he didn’t think Martin had any insurance. As far as he knew, all his possessions burned up with him.
He said the investigation might be hampered by Martin’s lack of dental records. “I don’t think he ever went to a dentist. He never had a cavity. He opened his mouth and showed me once: 'No crowns.'”
Joseph said he is going to have a hard time accepting that his friend is gone. “I’m going to miss him. You couldn’t help but love that crazy bugger.”