SALEM, Utah County — Standing in front of a crowd of thousands whose homes were being threatened by two massive mountain-side fires, Elk Ridge Mayor Ty Ellis braced for any "rotten tomatoes" about to fly his way as he prepared to share the bad news.
The auditorium at Salem Hills High School — a gathering place for some of the estimated 6,000 evacuees forced out of their homes four days ago by the blazes — fell quiet as Ellis went on to warn that evacuation orders might be in place for two weeks.
"I can't tell you when we're going to go home. I don't know. I wish I did," the mayor said, explaining the two-week window is a best estimate officials have so far for the erratic and explosive pair of fires that have together scorched more than 80,000 acres.
"I just don't know, so all we can tell you is let's just look at this a little longer term," Ellis said, adding that he and his family, as evacuees themselves, are in the same aggravating situation.
"It's frustrating," Ellis said. "All I wanted yesterday was clean air."
Ellis didn't get any rotten tomatoes hurled his way. Evacuees from Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills — some comforting crying children, some somber-faced — listened quietly.
Some, like Belva Horton, were accepting of the news.
"It will be fine," she said. "We have to have faith, and we have to have hope it's really not going to be that long."
Horton, of Elk Ridge, who has a son who works as a firefighter, said she understands the importance of putting human lives above saving property.
"It can all be replaced," she said. "We just have to stay cool and live it. We'll look back on this as something that we conquered."
As Horton and her husband gathered a few pictures and important documents from their home when they evacuated Thursday, Horton said she felt "at peace," mostly because she knew how her community would handle the situation with grace.
"It's so helpful to know there are thousands of people that are affected by this and we all feel the same — we're all here to help each other," she said.
So until further notice, the Hortons, along with their cat and dog, planned to stay in their camper trailer in the Salem Hills High parking lot, along with the rest of the families who are now living out of their trailers or RVs.
Having hope and faith was a recurring thought for many evacuees who spent most of Sunday at the high school, where thousands came to get more information about the blazes threatening their homes.
As of Sunday morning, the Pole Creek Fire had burned more than 61,000 acres, while the Bald Mountain Fire had charred about 13,500 acres, Spanish Fork public safety officials reported. Later Sunday, the Utah County Sheriff's Office reported total acreage estimates vary but have reached more than 80,000, with just 2 percent containment.
Evacuation orders remain in effect for more than 6,000 people — or about 2,000 homes — in Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills. Later Sunday, Diamond Fork and Sheep Creek areas were also ordered to evacuate.
The city of Salem had also placed residents living south of the Highline Canal under a pre-evacuation notice, urging residents to be prepared to evacuate with little notice.
Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox called Saturday's efforts to battle relentless winds and contain two wildfires threatening thousands of Utah County homes "nothing short of a miracle."
But Sunday, he tweeted, "will be another test."
And sure enough, conditions appeared to change for the worse about 2 p.m. when fire officials decided once again to close U.S. 6 through Spanish Fork Canyon after opening up the highway earlier Sunday morning.
Forest officials said the Pole Creek Fire was "spotted over the canyon" at the U.S. 89 and U.S. 6 junction. Aircraft was sent to the scene.
"This fire is serious," Elk Ridge Fire Chief Seth Waite told evacuees, noting that because of rapidly changing winds and extremely dry conditions, the fire could jump large distances within seconds.
Throughout the day, large plumes of white smoke wafted from the mountainside. While those smokey conditions might not look as threatening as flames, Waite warned that the fires continue to "smolder," and as heat builds up, the blaze can "flash" when large trees "explode," sending hot embers high into the sky.
"It's been crazy up there," the chief said. "We're not out of the woods."
Although air quality had improved Sunday, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality still urged residents with heart or lung conditions to take precautions.
In a showing of faith and prayer for safety, about a dozen neighborhood wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affected by the fires attended a prayer meeting and a luncheon at Salem Hills High School to break a day-long fast.
President David Christensen, a counselor in the Salem Utah Stake presidency, said church leaders organized the fast to "call on God for help and assistance" and "pray that we might be able to get back into our homes at some point in the near future."
President Christensen, whose family evacuated from a Woodland Hills neighborhood, held back tears as he explained the experience has been, believe it or not, "a tremendous blessing."
"I can't possibly put into words the outpouring of love that we have felt from the surrounding community," he said.
In fact, so many donations have flooded in from fellow Utahns, that a Salem warehouse holding the items was overwhelmed, and officials had to ask the community to put a pause on donations. Local eateries have donated food and time. Community members have been helping each other so much, the local Red Cross has even felt underutilized, President Christensen said.
"The blessings and the love that I have felt is immeasurable, and I am truly grateful for what I have personally experienced," he said. "You know, my house is a possession. It's OK. It can be replaced."
Other Utah fires
• Meanwhile, a fire that destroyed two Herriman homes and a shed — a more than 100-acre blaze that officials say was started by a juvenile boy playing with a smoke bomb — was 95 percent contained by Sunday afternoon. Fire crews monitored the fire, near 13508 S. 7530 West, until late Sunday, said Unified Fire Authority spokesman Matthew McFarland.
• Firefighters also continued to tackle another 800-acre blaze that shut down I-80 near Tooele on Saturday, snarling traffic and causing major delays. State Route 201, however, remained closed — and was expected to remain closed through Monday morning's commute — because of downed power lines that fell onto the road. The cause of the fire was not yet known Sunday, according to Ryan Willden, spokesman for the North Tooele Fire District.
As of Sunday, both directions of I-80 were open, and the fire was 50 percent contained, Tooele County Emergency Management officials reported. The fire still burned high on the mountain.5 comments on this story
• A new fire was reported Saturday about 19 miles northeast of Kamas that is burning along the north side of Mirror Lake Highway. The Cobblerest Fire was not posing risks to lives or property, but motorists on the highway are being encouraged to slow down and not stop in the area of mile marker 18 to mile marker 22.
• The lightning-caused Slate Fire has spread to 200 acres in an area about 6 miles northeast of Kamas, 3 ½ miles north of the Mirror Lake Highway. It began Aug. 23 and currently poses no risk to lives or property. Firefighters on the ground were assessing fire conditions and said they may suppress the west edge of the fire to better contain fire activity.