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Evacuations ordered after drones hinder firefighters, new Utah wildfire breaks out; FEMA offers assistance

Published June 22, 2016 12:31 am

Crime • Authorities offer $1K reward for information on drone operator who buzzed firefighting helicopter.
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After at least one drone hindered firefighting efforts, residents and campers in Washington County were evacuated Tuesday, fire officials said, while a new human-caused wildfire broke out in Uintah County, causing a road closure.

A mandatory evacuation was issued Tuesday afternoon in the Lloyd Canyon area on the western end of Pine Valley, thanks to the 650-acre lightning-sparked Saddle Fire, which still had no containment Tuesday, one week after it began. Conditions were so bad that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will fund most of the firefighting costs, according to an agency news release sent late Tuesday night.

FEMA's grants "do not provide assistance to individual home or business owners and do not cover other infrastructure damage caused by the fire," the release states.



The fire threatened about 100 structures — all homes ­— but residents were allowed to gather some belongings as they were evacuated.

Search and rescue crews had evacuated 35 people by Tuesday afternoon through an alert notification system and door-to-door volunteers, according to a news release from the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

Additional firefighting crews were still arriving late Tuesday night, fire officials said.

Fire officials encourage Washington County and Pine Valley residents to register their cellphones on Washington County's Emergency Alert System at 911register.com, which helps authorities keep in contact with people whose primary phone is a cellphone.

Other areas of Pine Valley were under voluntary evacuation orders, and people there were allowed to retrieve belongings.

Crews evacuated and closed the Pine Valley Recreation Area late Tuesday morning "for an extended period of time."

All trails not for motorized vehicles leading to the Pine Valley wilderness area were closed, and roads for motorized vehicles leading to Pine Valley — including "Mahogany Bench Road, Pine Valley Road #035 and the road south of Pinto, Road #011," — also have closures in place, according to a U.S. Forest Service Facebook page.

Baker Reservoir was closed to everyone, officials said.

U.S. Forest Service staff evacuated the Pine Valley Recreation Area campground areas Tuesday, but no details were available on how many people were evacuated.

In Uintah County, the human-caused Ashley Fire broke out north of Vernal about 4 p.m., growing to 50 acres within an hour and a half and topping off at about 60 acres Tuesday night.

Though officials did not expect the fire to grow, said Bureau of Land Management public information officer Kelsey Birchell, they still had not contained any portion of the fire.

But firefighters were making "good progress" on Ashley Fire, according to a tweet from officials. They estimated firefighters would contain the fire "in the next 24 hours," according to a tweet at about 9 p.m.

The specifics of how the fire began were under investigation Tuesday night, Birchell said, but the wildfire was burning Pinyon-juniper trees and had a high potential for spark due to hot, dry weather.

Fire officials ordered eight engines, three crews and an aircraft, which arrived Tuesday night and was "very effective," Birchell said. About 50 people were fighting the fire as of Tuesday night.

Additionally, Birchell said, "a lot" of volunteers were at the scene.

The wind had been pushing the fire north, burning on state ground, she said.

Taylor Mountain Road was closed north of the Vernal Rod and Gun Club due to the fire.

Though it was unclear how close the wildfire was to structures, firefighters were in place to protect the structures if need be, Birchell said.

Back in Washington County, the 355-acre Aspen Fire was at 97 percent containment Tuesday night. The Pine Canyon Fire was 100 percent contained, having burned 105 acres. The Sand Mountain Fire, 5 miles southwest of the Little Sahara Recreation Area, was 70 percent contained, at 111 acres.

A plague of drones — those increasingly popular small, remote-controlled aircraft — continue to interrupt critical fire-retardant- and water-dumping flights over southern Utah wildfires.

On Monday, a drone came within feet of a helicopter over the then-400-acre Saddle Fire, not only halting its mission, but endangering the crew.

That incident — the third in three days — came despite repeated warnings that flying drones over 5 mile-diameter restricted air space could lead to misdemeanor or felony arrests and charges.

"This is an attack on the safety and wellbeing of our flight crews and our aircraft," said Chris Henrie, fire incident commander. "This stopped a significant effort to protect the residents of Pine Valley and could have killed our flight crew."

In addition to federal Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service personnel, state and Washington County sheriff's deputies look to prevent further drone intrusions and bring their pilots to justice.

On Tuesday afternoon, the sheriff's office offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the drone operator from Monday's incident.

A Utah statute that took effect in May prohibits any unmanned aircraft from flying in "an area designated as a wildland fire scene." The owners of drones flying in wildfire areas face penalties of up to $275,000 and three years in jail. Offenders also can face other state and federal charges, including various misdemeanors and felonies.

The recent drone incidents have made tanker and helicopter crews leery of going back into the smoky skies over the still out-of-control Saddle Fire, burning in grass, brush, juniper and pinyon about two miles southwest of the town of Pine Valley.

"All requests ... to get firefighting aircraft airborne again were rejected because the firefighting pilots are defenseless against drones that come too close," said BLM spokesman Christian Venhuizen.

Local residents have received "reverse 911" calls regarding the drone pilot and the suspension of aerial resources responding to the fire. A door-to-door campaign also was planned Tuesday to educate the public and develop leads on the pilot or pilots.

Anyone with information on the drones or their pilots is urged to call the Washington County Sheriff's Office at 435-634-5734.

remims@sltrib.com, mnoble@sltrib.com

Twitter: @remims, @mnoblenews

 

 

 

 

 

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