Crews Battle Utah Wildfire Sparked at Firing Range

September 21, 2010

A wind-stoked fire sparked at a firing range during a National Guard training session blazed across hundreds of acres, as crews rushed to keep it from reaching any more than the estimated four homes that burned on Sunday.

The roughly 300-acre Machine Gun Fire moved in on the small community of Herriman on Sept. 19 after flaring up at Camp Williams, a sprawling National Guard site about 30 miles outside Salt Lake City, said Captain Brad Taylor.

As of press time, 1,652 homes had been evacuated, said fire information officer Jason Curry. Four houses were believed to have been lost, he said. At least 100 were threatened.

A shelter for evacuees without lodging was set up at a local high school.

“We’re going to keep our eyes obviously on the homes, and call additional crews out,” Taylor said late Sunday.

Herriman is rural community on the southwest side of the Salt Lake Valley. It’s flanked to the south and west by mountains. North and west are the valley’s suburban communities, with a combined population of about a million.

Utah National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Hank McIntire told the Salt Lake Tribune that dry brush had caught fire during an artillery training session at Camp Williams, and soldiers did not have the manpower or equipment to stop it from rapidly spreading.

“It was kind of a perfect storm scenario where once the fire started on the firing range at the National Guard base, the wind really kicked up,” said Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Lt. Don Hutson, who saw homes catch fire. “Literally, the fire was coming down into the backyards of many of these residents.”

The fire had caused no major injuries, officials said, although two police officers were treated for smoke inhalation and a third for minor injuries after being hit by the vehicle of a driver trying to return home, the Deseret News reported.

Resident Melissa Kula told the Tribune that she and her husband packed their car, then left their home just as flames were nearing their property. “I’m devastated, to say the least,” she said.

Winds racing through the area at 40 to 50 miles per hour pushed the fire over a mountain ridge and into the Salt Lake Valley, Hutson said.

“It was lifesaving efforts trying to get people out of the area because of a very, very fast-moving fire — literally moving faster than anybody could run,” he said.

McIntire, the Guard spokesman, said soldiers did not have the manpower or equipment to immediately stop the fire from quickly spreading.

To help battle fire, the Guard enlisted 124 troops and three Blackhawk helicopters, officials said. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon issued an emergency declaration, and the Federal Emergency Management said in a release that it would pay 75 percent of the state’s firefighting costs.

Several hours after the fire sparked, crews with the Unified Fire Authority crews were enlisted to help battle the blaze. The first round of mandatory evacuations, which included 262 homes, was ordered at 7 p.m., Taylor said. Later, an additional 1,000 homes were ordered evacuated, he said.

All Salt Lake County residents were asked not to use their cell phones to keep lines open for emergency communication, and volunteers evacuated animals from the area.

“We can see the flames at the top of the hill,” Faith Ching, owner of Ching Animal Farm and Rescue, told the Deseret News just before the fire reached some of the houses. “I don’t want to take a chance. It’s really scary.”

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