PAYSON — Ryan Albiston often camps with his family in Payson Canyon during summertime, hiking to a waterfall with his children and spotting deer, pheasants and cattle.
He returned Wednesday to find scorched firs and spruces. One of two wildfires raging nearby had ripped through the now ashy hillside above the popular Grotto hiking trail two days earlier.
"It's mind-blowing. I was there just a few months ago, camping with my kids and my brother's kids," he said. Now, he added, "I can't walk in there, because a tree might fall on me."
Albiston, a Utah Transit Authority bus operator, brought reporters Wednesday to a smoky site on Nebo Loop Road, about 7 miles up the canyon. At a news conference set against a backdrop of blackened slopes and smoldering hot spots, fire managers said crews are making progress toward containing the infernos south of Spanish Fork despite steep terrain and high, shifting winds.
Crews were battling gusts expected to exceed 30 miles per hour, in addition to low humidity and atmospheric instability, according to Dan Dallas, operation section chief for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team.
"In a nutshell, it's as bad as it gets," Dallas said of the weather.
The Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires together had torched roughly 100,000 acres as of Wednesday, more than 150 square miles. The cost of fighting them has topped $6 million, fire managers said Tuesday.
Many of the 6,000 current evacuees and their leaders are frustrated with firefighters as flames approach their homes, fearing crews aren't doing enough to keep them at bay, Dallas acknowledged. But he believes residents in Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge should feel more at ease after bulldozers and hand crews dedicated time Tuesday to creating barriers there and placing hoses in the yards of homes closest to the woods.
"It's actually reducing their risk," Dallas said.
The 16,500-acre Bald Mountain Fire was 12 percent contained as of Wednesday morning, but that number was expected to grow by evening, Dallas said.
A group of residents in the area from Eagles Landing south to the Utah and Sanpete county line were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday evening. They were instructed to be prepared to evacuate again if necessary.
"If there is an increase in fire behavior today, we're in a good position to be able to deal with it," Dallas said. "We have the ability to go burn out the fuels ahead of it." As he spoke, members of an elite Hotshot crew were digging a line on a steep hill above Payson Canyon to limit the fire's spread, he said.
"We can't just go in and put a fire out right away," explained Jerry Lopez, an engine boss with Great Basin Fire in his 15th season fighting wildfires. "It takes a lot of strategy and a lot of planning to be able to put people in there safely and not put our own lives at risk just to save property and homes."
Lopez spent Wednesday patrolling the canyon with two other firefighters, ready to tackle hot spots or provide water to crews working on the Bald Mountain Fire.
Progress on the neighboring Pole Creek Fire, at 88,400 acres and 28 percent containment, was less certain. Southwest winds were expected to shift to the north by nightfall, which could fan flames on the north end of the blaze in the Diamond Fork area, Dallas said.
Drones spotted flying above the south end of the fire also hindered progress, grounding helicopter and air tankers, the Uinta Wasatch Cache National Forest said on Twitter.
"Please keep personal drones away from fire airspace," the agency tweeted, warning #ifyouflywecant.
Strong daytime gusts have fanned the fire over the last week, and a nighttime temperature inversion has sent warm air up the canyon several days in a row, keeping flames active overnight, Dallas said. A metal shed is the only building that has been reported lost to the flames.
In addition to fire, crews are also combatting tiredness after a long season, said Keith Long, safety officer for the incident team that has battled three other fires in Colorado this summer. Several Hotshot crews have clocked 1,200 hours of overtime so far, he said, about twice the amount they typically log in a year.
"Fatigue is huge," he said. Still, only a minor injury has been reported so far, and some firefighters have been treated for dehydration.
Beverly and Dale Christofferson, who manage Elk Ridge Arena and decided to stay in their home despite evacuation orders, spent Wednesday caring for their 20 head of cattle and 10 horses. They believe they can flee quickly by cutting across their hayfield if winds whip flames back toward their house, they said. And they are comforted when they see fire teams in foothills during the day and at night.
"We just feel like we're in good hands," Beverly Christofferson said.8 comments on this story
The Bald Mountain Fire has disrupted the livelihoods of ranchers they know whose cattle graze in the canyon, though no cows have been reported killed in the blaze. In an effort to help their neighbors, the Christoffersons have allowed several cattle driven from the flames into their own corral.
It's not unusual for ranchers who lose grazing land to wildfires to go out of business, Dallas said.
"But also, they live in a fire environment," he continued. "It's like the folks in Woodland Hills. If they didn't know when they bought that house that they were living in a fire environment, they do now."