SPANISH FORK — As a pair of fast-growing wildfires south of Spanish Fork torched more than 68,000 acres and an estimated 5,000 people remained evacuated, Gov. Gary Herbert warned conditions could worsen.
"There are hundreds of homes in the pathway of a very devastating fire. If they burn, we will have the biggest loss monetarily in (the history of) the state of Utah," Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday evening following a meeting with fire officials and local leaders in Spanish Fork.
"This is a real emergency with the potential to be a significant emergency depending on what happens over the next couple of days," Herbert said, speaking from the Ponderosa Event Center.
The Pole Creek Fire more than doubled in size in a matter of hours following evacuations late Thursday, growing to 54,000 acres on Friday. It is zero percent contained, fire officers announced Friday. The nearby Bald Mountain Fire is burning 14,500 acres.
The fires are now the top two fire priorities in the U.S, officials said. A Type 1 fire crew has taken over command.
So far, only a fence has been damaged in the lightning-caused Pole Creek Fire, but several homes and cabins were threatened, said Sgt. Spencer Cannon, spokesman for the Utah County Sheriff's Office. Winds died down Friday, slowing the fire's growth, he added.
Herbert said if winds again pick up, conditions could "become even worse."
"Boy, if you've got any sway with the man upstairs, let's see what we can do to help with the weather," he said.
In Spanish Fork Canyon's Covered Bridge community, the home of Joanna Oldham and her husband, Nate, was among those threatened. The Bald Mountain Fire on Friday raged about 4 to 6 miles away from the house that once belonged to his grandmother.
When they learned they needed to evacuate Thursday evening, the family borrowed a trailer and scrambled to pack documents and stuffed animals under an eerie, orange sky, Joanna Oldham said.
"We can handle losing a home and the structure of that home," Oldham said. "For me, the fear in this fire is imagining what it's going to look like when we get back if this fire sweeps through. Is that still going to be home, when all of your memories and your attachments have to do with that beautiful terrain, and the trees, and your environment and the people that surround you up there?"
At a meeting Friday morning, Oldham said fire managers indicated their efforts early in the day would concentrate in other areas more at risk, intensifying the family's concern their community would go up in flames.
The parents and their children, ages 2, 4 and 6, are staying with family in Mapleton. "We keep telling them just to keep praying, and that everything is going to be OK. And they believe us. I just hope that's true," Joanna Oldham said.
U.S. Senate candidate for Utah Mitt Romney also spoke at the community meeting the Oldhams attended.
"I reach out with my own feelings, and hope and pray that the homes are able to be preserved," Romney said. He said he was impressed by firefighters' hard work protecting homes and that more resources were needed to prevent wildfires from spreading.
Cox said Romney wasn't campaigning and came to the meeting because he wants to figure out how the federal government can better fight wildfires, but an audience member disagreed.
"Save it for later. You're campaigning," the woman shouted as Romney spoke.
Both Cox and Romney have been critical of federal firefighting efforts this year.
On Thursday, Cox said the U.S. Forest Service exhibited "inept" decision-making in monitoring the fire and allowing it to burn early on instead of suppressing it. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During the press conference Friday evening, Herbert also answered questions about the U.S. Forest Service's fire management.
"As you've heard them say, hindsight is always 20/20," he said, adding that there will be "time to analyze this" and have conversations later about how to manage forests. "But it's not time to finger-point today. … Let's get the fire out."
U.S. 6 had reopened Friday, but U.S. 89 remained closed in both directions near the fire. The Nebo Loop Road and Nephi Canyon Road were closed at the turnoff from state Route 132 in Juab County.
Evacuations remain in place for the towns of Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge, in addition to the Covered Bridge area and a stretch of U.S. 89 from the junction of U.S. 6 to Indianola.
It was not clear how many homes in the other communities Friday were directly at risk. No homes in Woodland Hills were threatened, said Mayor Wendy Pray.
Cannon estimated that 5,000 evacuees had packed up and were staying with friends, family or elsewhere by Friday morning. Many ate lunch and commiserated at an evacuation center at Salem Hills High.
The Pole Creek Fire is burning 3 miles from the smaller fire threatening the Oldham family's home, and the two infernos — at the conjunction of Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties — are threatening to merge.
The fires joining could either help or hinder firefighting efforts, depending on where they join, said Brook Chadwick, forest fire management officer with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
A cabin that has been in Jared Finch's family for more than 50 years lies within the anticipated meeting point of the two fires near Nebo Loop, he said Friday.
"It's not a fancy cabin. It's got running water, but you can't drink it. The electricity is off of a generator. It's pretty rustic," Finch said. "For us, it's just a lot of memories." His extended family has long met at the cabin to snowmobile in winter and rides horses in summer, and replaced the roof in June.
Other wildfires in the past have torched several acres not far from the cabin, he said, but "we've never been at this much risk of losing it."
Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the twin fires are roaring at a time when firefighters already are fatigued from a long, dry season. Volunteer fire groups in particular have played a bigger role this summer, especially in timber-heavy regions, he said.22 comments on this story
"There is a lot of stress and cumulative fatigue that builds up," he said. "People are tired and are continuing to the job they do well." Supervisors have reminded crews to make careful decisions and not put themselves in unnecessary danger, he added.
Herbert cautioned Utahns, while driving through the area, to be aware of the more than 1,000 firefighters who are expected on scene to fight the fire in coming days.
Contributing: Ashley Imlay, Jed Boal, Mary Richards
Correction: A previous version incorrectly spelled the surname of the Oldham family as Oldhan.