We all owe all of our homes to the efforts of the firefighters. They did a wonderful job saving our homes and our animals. —Vicki Peppler
ROCKPORT, Summit County — Heavy afternoon winds stirred the devastating Rockport 5 Fire from a temporary lull Wednesday, engulfing its 14th home.
But fire officials said if not for the fast work of firefighters Wednesday, many more houses could have been lost.
"We did lose the one structure today, but at the same time they saved 22 other structures in the same area," said Summit County District Fire Warden Bryce Boyer.
If the weather doesn't cause significant problems Thursday, Boyer hopes crews will be able to contain 50 percent of the unpredictable wildfire.
At times, the wind fueled flames that were 60 feet to 80 feet high at the front of the fire, according to state officials. Huge plumes of smoke could again be seen for miles rising above the mountains where Wednesday morning there had been nothing.
The wind-driven fire moved about 100 feet per minute at times on Wednesday.
Because of the fast moving flames and heavy smoke, the evacuation order for the approximately 300 homes in the Rockport Estates, Bridge Hollow and Promontory neighborhoods remained in effect for the second night and will stay in place at least until 6 p.m. Thursday.
Winds that had pushed the fire up the mountain west of state Route 32 adjacent to Rockport State Park on Tuesday shifted direction Wednesday afternoon and pushed the fire back down the mountain.
The Rockport 5 Fire had burned an estimated 2,000 acres and was about 25 percent contained as of Wednesday evening. Those strong winds kicked up between 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., causing the 14th home to burn. Twelve homes burned Tuesday and a 13th was burned overnight.
All of the burned homes were in the Rockport Estates community.
"Most of the the homes that were lost did not have the defensible space. There was oak brush right up to them, tall sage grass right along the exterior of them. The homes that we are seeing that are saved and that have a better chance of saving are the ones that have done fuel work," Boyer said.
Those who may have thought their homes survived the fire Tuesday night were still in danger of having their homes burn down Wednesday.
"If they're within the perimeter of the fire, those homes are still in jeopardy," said Mike Eriksson, northeast area manager of the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
The Rockport 5 Fire on Wednesday turned into a series of flare ups and lulls.
The winds first fanned hot spots about 1 p.m. at Rockport Estates. Two helicopters dumping water on another part of the fire were able to shift their focus and put out the flames before they reached any other homes in the blackened area.
"All that (ground) that's up there that's now black with the edges that are green, are getting hot enough that these flare-ups are coming up again. That flare-up we saw a few minutes ago was probably about 15-foot flame lengths in the oak brush, moving right toward some structures," State Forester Dick Buehler said Wednesday. "We had water on that thing in just a few minutes, so that's an advantage we have today that we didn't have yesterday."
Fire conditions had calmed enough by Wednesday evening, however, that crews lit a backburning fire on the high ridge line of the Promontory area. The flames were visible for miles throughout Summit County, especially along the I-80 corridor. But state officials said those were controlled burns that posed no threat to residents.
"That was actually the second ... burnout. We burned out earlier today along the Bridge Hollow border and that one was very successful off the dozer line," said Boyer.
Earlier Wednesday, fire officials estimated about 200 homes were still threatened in the Promontory neighborhood. A DC-10 aircraft carrying 10,000 pounds of fire retardant made a drop over a mile-long path in the area in the early afternoon. A second drop was made a couple of hours later, and a third in the early evening. The plane was called in from Pocatello, Idaho, to help with the fire.
The emotions of evacuated residents fluctuated Wednesday almost as much as the fire. Some felt elation that their homes are still standing. Others grieved. And most continued to worry as the fire conditions changed.
One resident of the evacuated Promontory Ranch subdivision was arrested Wednesday after ignoring a deputy's roadblock.
"He said he was not going to abide by the rules and was going to drive around (the deputy)," Summit County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Bridge said. "He was given an order not to proceed, but he went around the deputy and drove over the cones."
"I believe the only explanation given was he felt it was an unreasonable barricade," added Sheriff's Lt. Nick Wilkinson.
The deputy pursued with lights and sirens blaring, but the man didn't stop until he got to his driveway and pulled into his garage, Bridge said. At that point, Robert Weiner, 74, was arrested for investigation of evading.
"Mr. Weiner had been warned the night before where he actually did do the same thing on the evening of the 13th and was informed if he did it again he would be arrested and booked into jail," Wilkinson said.
While the sheriff's office cannot forcefully make any adults who do not have children to leave the evacuated areas, once they go outside the police roadblocks, deputies can legally prevent them from going around the barricades.
Fire officials said there were at least two known residents in the Rockport Estates and Bridge Hollow areas who refused to leave.
In addition to the 14 homes that were lost, there were 20 outbuildings and several cars and boats that have also burned in the wildfire.
"This is probably the worst fire we've had in Summit County in terms of property lost and threatened homes and so forth. This is our No. 1 natural hazard up here," said Summit County Emergency Manager Kevin Callahan.
Summit County has been fortunate over the past several years not to have any devastating fires, he said. But there was little that could have been to prevent this one.
"This was a very unique situation where we had a lightning strike up here and within 20 minutes it was up to about 20 acres and it just shot up the hill. It was faster than anyone could contain it. We lost on that one in terms of our luck," Callahan said.
Before the wind picks up Wednesday, about a dozen Rockport Estates residents gathered along the side of state Route 32 to see if they could see their homes, and if they could be escorted back to them to get pets and other essentials.
A sheriff's deputy allowed one group of residents to go back to their homes, grab their essentials, and get back out of the blocked off area within 10 minutes.
Items they grabbed included "things that you can't insure and can't bring back," said one man who loaded his pickup with his wedding album, computers, guns and four guitars — including "an old-school Gibson."
An emotional but relieved Raini Butters temporarily returned home to rescue her cats. "They could have suffocated. They could have burned," she said.
Butters was relieved to learn that her home was still standing. The flames had burned the area all around it. But she remembers how frustrated she felt when the flames were approaching her home.
"I had to sit there and watch as a fire was going toward my neighbors' house and my house. All I could do was sit and watch. I felt helpless, like, 'What am I supposed to do?'"
Those whose homes were saved had nothing but high praise for firefighters.
"It was unbelievable the way those firefighters did this, because it's totally burned around (his house). He had a car on the side of the road that's gone. I mean, it's amazing what they did up there, really. I thought twice that everything was going when I was watching from Promontory," said Scott Peppler, whose house was saved. "I don't know how they did it, to be honest with you. It was like a city block fire heading toward our house."
"We all owe all of our homes to the efforts of the firefighters. They did a wonderful job saving our homes and our animals," added Vicki Peppler.
The Pepplers, who spent the night at their daughter's house in Salt Lake City, were back Wednesday to get their two Labrador retrievers that they were unable to get out Tuesday night. They, too, were escorted back to their home by deputies and returned 10 minutes later with their two Labs.
Pike said the confusion and worry over the fire exhausted him.
"After yesterday, and just the fun and excitement up there, a rock would have felt good last night," he said. "I slept pretty good, cause I was just so darn tired."
Residents also quickly called other neighbors, friends and family members after being in the blocked-off area to let them know what they had seen and whose house had burned.
Many gathered around Deseret News photographer Ravell Call's aerial photos of the burned area, intently studying what was still standing and what wasn't.
"I still have a home!" one man exclaimed.
"They really did a good job," another commented on the firefighting efforts.
"I can't believe he still has a home," said another, looking at a neighbor's property.
Blackened land could be seen starting at the edge of Rockport Estates and where it burned over Kent Canyon into Rockport Ranches, along state Route 32 across from Rockport State Park and the reservoir, and into Promontory.
Firefighters are also battling other fires throughout Utah.
A "significant spread" in the the Millville Fire in Cache County Wednesday forced sheriff's deputies to evacuate cabins and campgrounds in the Blacksmith Fork area. Deputies were going cabin-to-cabin and leaving notes on vehicles in the canyon, warning recreationists about the evacuation order.
The evacuation area includes Blacksmith Fork Canyon from the Sleepy Hollow Road turnoff at the mouth of the canyon to the intersection with the Left Hand Fork (approximately 6 miles).
About 3,120 acres have been burned and the fire was 20 percent contained. More than 150 were battling the Millville Fire, which started Sunday morning by lightning.
The State Fire near Portage, Box Elder County, had burned 24,107 acres and was 55 percent contained Wednesday evening. The fire began Aug. 8.
The lightning-caused fire north of Portage and southwest of Malad, Idaho, was being fought Wednesday by 330 personnel.
Another public meeting to update residents about the fire will be held Thursday at 7 p.m. at Malad Elementary School, 250 W. 400 North.
In Tooele County’s Skull Valley, the Patch Springs Fire had burned 13,000 acres and was 20 percent contained. The fire, located about 2 miles northwest of Terra in Skull Valley, began Saturday and was also caused by lightning.
About 150 personnel were fighting that blaze. Crews were focusing suppression efforts on the southern section of the fire to keep it from spreading toward Terra.
The Mt. Elmer Fire, located southeast of Mt. Elmer in the Mt. Naomi Wilderness Area about 10 miles northeast of Logan, was ignited by lightning Friday. The fire exhibited significant smoke Wednesday and was easily visible from Logan. The fire is not yet staffed due to higher priority fires elsewhere, but the Forest Service is monitoring the blaze.