SOUTH JORDAN — Utah firefighters who have spent the past two weeks helping fight the devastating wildfires in Southern California returned home on Wednesday.
Between 80 and 100 firefighters from 16 agencies in northern Utah — from Layton to Provo — as well as firefighters in southern Utah, joined firefighters from other parts of the nation in helping California crews who became overwhelmed by the massive wildfires in their state. Most of those firefighters returned home Wednesday.
Utah's firefighters were divided into five task forces in California. They were first assigned to the Lilac Fire in San Diego that burned about 4,100 acres and destroyed or damaged about 200 structures. Salt Lake Fire Capt. Scott Winkler said their main duties were structure protection and a "lot of mop up."
Utah's crew was then sent to the larger Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, currently the second largest wildfire in California history. There, Utah firefighters were assigned to protect critical infrastructure such as the Santa Barbara Water Treatment Plant, as well as conduct patrols at night.
"It was pretty apocalyptic to be that close to the convection column by the fire, towering smoke column right above Santa Barbara, raining embers and ash down on our equipment and the homes. Everything had this sort of surreal coating of white ash on it that was blowing around in those Santa Ana winds down there. And to see all the people with their dust masks on and the inversion of smoke that was hanging over the counties down there, it was just really something out of disaster movie," Winkler said.
South Jordan Deputy Fire Chief Reed Thompson was impacted by how fast the fire moved. One morning, he said the fire spread a mile in 20 minutes.
"It was certainly interesting to see if you had a change in wind, how quickly the fire could move," he said.
Winkler called Utah's assistance just a "small piece in a big machine." But he felt Utah's contingency made a difference. And the reception they received, particularly from residents in Santa Barbara, was "overwhelming," he said.
"I was really happy to be engaged with the residents of Santa Barbara and Ventura. They were really receptive and warm to us being there. We were really overwhelmed with the amount of gratitude we were shown while we were down there," he said.Comment on this story
Overall, Winkler said Utah firefighters did their best to "meet or exceed what we needed to do."
Three of the five Utah task forces arrived home on Wednesday. A fourth consisting of firefighters from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, Washington City, Hurricane Valley, Cedar City and Kanab, was scheduled to leave California on Wednesday and be back by Saturday.
The fifth group, consisting of firefighters from Unified Fire Authority and West Valley City was expected to start driving back on Saturday.