DUCHESNE — While weather conditions Wednesday continued to thwart the efforts of firefighters battling the Dollar Ridge Fire, a community is coming together — in a very big way — to look out for its own in the face of an emergency with expanding impacts.
The fire, which was estimated to be burning 40,000 acres east of Strawberry Reservoir, has displaced hundreds of homeowners and is being battled by over 400 firefighters, as well as airborne assets like Blackhawk helicopters from Hill Air Force Base with water-dumping equipment.
Wednesday night, the Duchesne County Sheriff's Office said the blaze had crossed U.S. 40. The office advised people on the north side of U.S. 40 from Currant Creek to Upper Red Creek Road to prepare to evacuate if needed.
Officials closed the highway in both directions from milepost 50 to milepost 86, according to the Utah Department of Transportation. UDOT advised travelers to use state Route 35 or U.S. 191 as an alternate route.
The Wasatch County Sheriff's Office issued a mandatory evacuation for people at 40 Dam Acres, Pine Hollow, the Aspen Grove campground and the Aspen Grove Marina as state fire officials said the fire's intensity increased dramatically and changed direction late Wednesday afternoon.
A Type 1 team was expected to take over management of the fire beginning Thursday morning. A community meeting about the fire was scheduled for Thursday evening at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of Duchesne High School.
On Wednesday morning, about 50 people were at the school, 155 W. Main, where the Utah Red Cross headquartered its evacuation shelter for victims of the fire.
While most relaxed at tables set up in a lobby near the school's gymnasium, workers and volunteers stayed busy signing in newcomers, assessing what help they needed, and organizing and distributing the donations that, according to Red Cross officials, have been pouring in from the community.
As Herb Kehl and his wife, Diny, picked up supplies from the shelter Wednesday, they told the Deseret News that the help they were getting from the Red Cross, as well as community members, helped give them strength to ride out the emergency.
"Having this, what's going here, makes us feel like we can actually get through this," Diny Kehl said. "It's restored our faith in our fellow man, I can tell you that."
They were evacuated from their home in the Pinion Ridge area near Strawberry Reservoir on Monday. Though the Kehls had their RV to stay in at the east end of town, getting food from the shelter was helping ease their tension.
Before evacuating on Monday, the couple said they could see the fireline advancing toward their home and were being showered with ash. On Wednesday, they believed their residence was still undamaged but had heard the fire was moving closer to their home.
"We'll be OK, no matter what," Herb Kehl said. "What happens, happens."
Red Cross Shelter Manager Joni Crane said about three dozen evacuees spent Tuesday night at the shelter. Although the shelter has beds and cots, most evacuees chose to pitch tents on a lawn behind the school so they could sleep near pets who, like residents, were still working to deal with displacement anxieties, she said.
"It's sort of the dynamic of our (Uinta) Basin residents to really be looking out for their animals … who are as traumatized as owners by the fire and evacuations," Crane said.
While 35 people stayed at the shelter overnight Tuesday, the shelter has helped many others find places to stay. And about 300 people have signed up to receive meals, she said.
Most of the people who have checked into the shelter for assistance experience some relief when they realize that help is close at hand, according to Crane.
She said the community's willingness to volunteer and donate to those affected, as well as the organizations assisting with the cause, have been “unprecedented.”
Among volunteers helping at the shelter Wednesday, Curt Skewes put up shade structures near the high school for evacuees' pets. Skewes said he'd also been helping transport animals, such as horses, that evacuated residents couldn't move themselves, or that had been abandoned or separated from their owners. Many of those animals were being sheltered at the Duchesne County Fairgrounds.
Duchesne County facilities and maintenance employee Codi Jenkins has been helping manage incoming animals at the fairgrounds as well as caring for those that had already arrived. She said about 22 dogs, four cats, 14 horses and one donkey is sheltered at the fairgrounds, just outside of Duchesne.
One of the dogs was rescued from an evacuation area on Tuesday and arrived very pregnant. She gave birth to five puppies late Tuesday night and was nestled in with her new brood in a livestock stall at the fairgrounds on Wednesday. Jenkins said residents who have been separated from their pets can contact the Duchesne County Animal Control for help getting reconnected.
While high winds and very hot, dry weather is expected to continue through the week and complicate the work of firefighters, the Red Cross shelter operators said they were preparing to help more residents as fire officials expanded evacuation orders Wednesday. And, they noted ongoing assistance coming from the community would continue to be a major help for the effort. Businesses in town have offered to help out as well.
Paul Edwards, Gov. Gary Herbert's deputy chief of staff, said in a statement Wednesday that a cost-sharing agreement with the U.S. Forest Service was negotiated on Tuesday and the state was already approved for a FEMA Fire Management Assistance Grant for the Dollar Ridge Fire.
The grant is for fire suppression costs only. Edwards also noted that the state's insurance department will be sending customer service representatives to Duchesne as early as Thursday to help affected individuals with claims assistance.
Among other fires still burning across the state Wednesday:
• The Black Mountain Fire near Minersville in Beaver County, caused by a vehicle accident last week, was 98 percent contained at about 6,000 acres. Fire information officer Nick Howell said Wednesday critical fire weather meant more work for firefighters in the area's steep, rugged terrain.
• More than 200 firefighters were fighting the human-caused Willow Patch Fire east of Richfield, which has burned about 4,800 acres and was 60 percent contained. Beth McClanahan, fire information officer, said resources at the fire were on track to reach full suppression.Comment on this story
• About 600 firefighters Wednesday were battling the West Valley Fire in Washington County’s Pine Valley, which has burned about 10,800 acres and was 8 percent contained. Utah fire officials said the blaze started with a campfire that was left unattended.
• The lightning-caused Willow Creek Fire, north of Highway 40 and Strawberry Reservoir on the Heber-Kamas Ranger District, was 96 percent contained at about 1,300 acres Wednesday, with a few interior spots still smoldering, according to Brenda Bushnell, fire information officer.
Contributing: Ashley Imlay