ELK RIDGE, Utah County — Ten days after evacuation orders forced them from their homes as wildfires raged in the mountains nearby, about 4,000 people were allowed back into the communities of Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills Saturday.
"It's a relief," said Gaylene Jacobson. "It has been a long week."
The Elk Ridge homeowner of more than 20 years and her grandsons hauled documents, pictures in frames and her grandmother's sewing machine out of a trailer and back into her home on Saturday. They took breaks to survey a scorched hillside a few miles from the home as a helicopter dumped water over draws near Loafer Mountain.
"It came on really quick for us," Dennis Jacobson said of the fire. "With the wind blowing, it made it a serious problem."
He remained at the home for a few days after his wife left, ready to fight flames with a water truck he usually uses for the construction business they run.
The Jacobsons and those in nearby Woodland Hills remain on pre-evacuation notice and could be asked to leave again if the fire once more approaches the small cities, but fire managers said the outlook was safe enough to allow residents to return Saturday. Many waited in line in their cars at the foot of Elk Ridge Saturday afternoon. The city first reopened to evacuees at 9 a.m.
Not everyone was allowed to return home. A few miles to the east, the smaller community of Covered Bridge in Spanish Fork Canyon remained under evacuation.
Crews by Saturday had made progress in containing the two lightning-sparked wildfires roaring nearby that have torched a combined 184 square miles.
The Pole Creek Fire, which has charred 100,144 acres, was 34 percent contained, according to an update posted Saturday night by the regional and state agencies fighting the fire. The smaller Bald Mountain Fire, which was threatening the Jacobsons' community, had grown to more than 18,500 acres and was 18 percent contained.
"Hard work the last few days produced conditions for increasing direct containment line," the Rocky Mountain Incident Management team wrote in a statement.
Firefighters reminded families that they have put hoses and sprinklers in some yards in case the fire approaches their homes, and urged them to avoid moving or touching the tools.
"Children will be curious; everyone please keep them safe," the statement said.
Crews were also working to prevent the Pole Creek Fire's spread to the south, and firefighters continued to monitor the edge of the flames near U.S. 6 to protect homes there. A portion of U.S. 89 remains closed.
Light winds Saturday worked to firefighters' advantage, but stronger gusts are expected to once again fan the flames Sunday. Low humidity and high atmospheric instability in the forecast are also expected to hinder firefighting efforts.
Gaylene Jacobson said she remains somewhat traumatized by the flames she saw shooting several hundred feet into the air as she and her 8-year-old grandson Tripp pulled off of their street when they left to stay with her daughter's family in Mona on Sept. 13, she said.
"It was so emotional to look back and see, this is real. This is really happening. And I could lose my home. I could lose it all. I was grateful to go out with what I have, but I thought, we could lose all these homes real fast," she said.
Earlier that day, after fire officers declared the blaze was dangerous enough to evacuate the community, Jacobson rushed to pack family heirlooms, including a blanket her late mother made. She was hospitalized in Nephi the next day because she was so exhausted and stressed about the possibility of losing their home, she said.
Her husband built their single-story house, her mom painted railings inside by hand, and air-conditioning and electrical systems were installed in large part by her dad and her father-in-law.
"It's not just a house that we live in," she said. "It's a house that we built."2 comments on this story
She said she has concerns about possible mudslides after the fire consumed so many trees near her home, but for now is grateful that her neighborhood only smells faintly of smoke.
"For this little area, we were lucky," Dennis Jacobson added.
Christi Nebeker, who also lives in Elk Ridge, agreed. She said authorities originally told her and her neighbors they may be out of their homes for yet another week.
"It could have been so much worse," she said. "You just have to smile and say, it's been a hard experience, but we're lucky to come through it as well as we did."
Contributing: Alex Cabrero