DUCHESNE — The Dollar Ridge Fire, entering its sixth day, has destroyed 90 homes with about 1,000 more still threatened, fire officials confirmed for the first time Thursday.
A report from the state Department of Energy Management also indicates that about 1,100 people have been evacuated since it began on Sunday.
"Those numbers won't become real as far as how many homes have been destroyed until … it could be a couple of weeks after this fire is out," said fire spokesman Brian Harris. That's when state officials will be able to conduct a more thorough damage assessment.
"Oil, natural gas and power line infrastructure are at risk," the report also states.
"This thing has the ability to move a great distance in a short amount of time," Tony DeMasters, a strategic fire planner for the Forest Service told a crowded Duchesne High School auditorium filled with evacuees Thursday night. "So, that's why we need to be thinking very strategically as far as our plan of attack."
Harris told evacuees that officials do not know if Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance will be provided, but said the groundwork is there.
"Your governor did declare a statewide state of emergency," Harris said. "And that does open the door for some federal assistance to come in. So we'll see how it goes."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert toured the areas affected by the fire Tuesday, and ordered the state of emergency. Mitt Romney, currently running for a U.S. Senate seat in Utah, visited Duchesne Thursday, speaking briefly with evacuees at the high school and fire officials.
While the fire has displaced about 1,100 people since Sunday, the evacuation center only had three people stay the night Wednesday, according to George Muller, the spokesman for the Red Cross' northern Utah chapter. They had nine empty cots.
"Everybody else pretty much has family, stays at hotels, stays at the campgrounds — a lot of people have trailers," Muller said. An encampment of about 15 tents has formed on a grassy area next to the school.
Evacuees, mostly older couples, quietly sat at tables in the high school's lobby Thursday afternoon. The high school has transformed beyond recognition into a makeshift Army barracks. Red Cross and community volunteers staffed tables, while children filed past Thursday with large bags of dog food over their heads.
The Red Cross has not been short-staffed or short-supplied. Quite the contrary, the community can't seem to stop helping.
"This shelter is staffed with Red Cross and the local people from the community," Muller said. "So, we're not running a tight Red Cross operation, per se, because they have saddled up."
Among those rearing to volunteer were Lynn and Kacy Dumas, who stood off in a corner of the lobby. A large — now expired — map of the fire's radius caught their attention. Lynn Dumas, a tall man with a beard more silver than brown, traced his finger as he tried to find their home.
"The map doesn't tell us anything," Kacy Dumas said.
The house is right in the heart of the mountains, they said, about 14 miles west of the school. The couple was able to briefly visit their home Thursday morning, but Lynn Dumas thinks the fire is about 4 to 5 miles away from it.
Kacy Dumas said her husband is a quiet man, and his relative chattiness in this high school lobby is a sign that he's nervous.
"It is very nerve-wracking," he said, breaking from his previous assurances that there was nothing to worry about, and the stoic demeanor he carries.
He said his children, all grown up now, live next to them and have young children of their own.
"I'm not going to lie," Dumas said. "We're starting to wonder, 'What are we going to do?'"
"Honey — honey," his wife interjected, resting a hand on his. "I'm not."
Lynn Dumas still wonders about his kids — their home is not insured.
"I know we're OK," he said. "But what are we going to do?"
What they do for now is work. While the two are evacuees themselves, they have signed up for whatever assistance is needed. That attitude can be seen throughout Duchesne's transplants.
Laraine and Cory Anderson are outside Duchesne Elementary School scooping out ice cream for those just leaving dinner. They were not evacuated from their home, but rather were compelled to help.
Cory Anderson said his wife bought 24 gallons of ice cream to sell at a local Fourth of July celebration.
"I was like, 'What are we going to do with all this ice cream?'" he said, chuckling. "It would be great to come down here and give it away."
The Andersons, along with their teenage son Jorgan, and friend Josue Silvas, drove from the Vernal area, with a freezer in tow.
Cory Anderson and Silvas made the trip down on motorcycles. They are members of Eastern Utah Bikers.
"The little kids down here are probably bored out of their minds, and every kid loves a motorcycle," Laraine Anderson said. "And so we figured these guys could bring their motorcycles down and let the kids look at them, and take pictures — just to get their minds off of a scary situation."
The main artery between the Wasatch Front and the Uinta Basin remained closed Thursday night as crews continued to battle the state's largest wildfire. It has burned an estimated 42,000 acres east of Strawberry Reservoir and is just 4 percent contained.
The fire jumped U.S. 40 Wednesday. The 40-mile stretch of road between Duchesne and Wasatch County — from about the Aspen Grove campground to just west of Duchesne — remained closed with no estimate of when it would reopen. The Utah Department of Transportation advised travelers to use state Route 35 or U.S. 191 as alternate routes.
Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Hill acknowledged that a large portion of Duchesne County lives and recreates in the areas evacuated, and asked those people for their patience while they're displaced.
"I have property out there, too, that I’m going to lose. It affects us all the same,” he said.
The goal for firefighters on Thursday was to work on structure protection, particularly on the fire's north front, and try to reopen U.S. 40, said fire spokesman Louis Haynes.
A Type 1 team has taken over management of the fire.
"The Type 1 teams come in with more people, more equipment and more managers. So they can handle the more complex fires,” Haynes said.
Meanwhile, residents in the area from Currant Creek Junction to Upper Red Creek Road, which the Duchesne County Sheriff's Office described as everything from the Big G convenience store to the west, were cautioned to be ready to evacuate.
Haynes said it was important for residents to prepare as if they are going to be out of their homes for up to four weeks.
On Wednesday, 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.
Sheriff's deputies allowed some residents, like the Dumases, who needed to get back to their homes for essential items go into the evacuated area for a brief time Thursday morning. But all residents had to be back out by 1 p.m. and let authorities know they had returned.
Those with property east of the Big G store, south of U.S. 40 and north of Strawberry River Road, were eligible to go back in after checking first with the sheriff's office. Those with property on Lower Red Creek Road needed to check with deputies to decide if it was safe to return. But the sheriff's office said the Camelot Resort near the Strawberry River was off-limits.
The Moon Lake Electric Association announced Thursday that due to the fire threatening a transmission line, the decision was made to "de-energize Strawberry Valley, this includes the following areas: All of Strawberry Valley, Daniels Summit Lodge, Strawberry Bay Marina and all cabins and homes located in this area."
The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Twitter page added that the power to the Strawberry Valley was out because "a transformer has been burned by the Dollar Ridge Fire, and there is no ETA for when power will be restored."
The human-caused fire is believed to have started on July 1 on private property in Wasatch County and quickly exploded, being pushed by strong winds and thick, dry vegetation in steep terrain.
Other Utah fires:
• Fire crews working the West Valley Fire about 10 miles north of St. George reported good progress on Thursday. The fire has burned about 11,716 acres and is 20 percent contained.
"Backfire operations and aerial attack has been highly successful to slow the progress of the fire and hold the line," fire spokeswoman Sierra Hellstrom tweeted Thursday.2 comments on this story
About 11 a.m. Thursday, however, officials announced that they were forced to ground all aircraft due to a drone in the area. They reminded the public that drones are illegal in fire areas, and their helicopters and planes can't fly if drones are spotted.
• The Trail Mountain Fire 15 miles northwest of Orangeville has burned just over 18,000 acres as of Thursday and is 90 percent contained.
• A new fire broke out Thursday near North Fork in Weber County. It was estimated to have burned 10 acres. Six homes were evacuated before the fire was 100 percent contained early Thursday evening, according to the Weber County emergency manager.
Contributing: Jed Boal, Caitlin Burchill