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Tiny portion of raging fire at Brian Head is contained

Published June 21, 2017 8:49 am

About 976 acres burned by Monday evening, but only one home is destroyed, thanks to air resources, officials say.
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Brian Head Resort • A specialist wildfire management team and hundreds more firefighters arrived at the Brian Head Fire on Monday, prompting optimism even as temperatures heated up and light winds pushed the blaze in the general direction of the town.

Officials said they were hopeful the flames would remain controlled after a relentless assault of retardant and water was dropped by helicopters and air tankers since the man-made fire began early Saturday afternoon and grew quickly through dense timber.

It destroyed one cabin and damaged at least three more.

"Our firefighters have been able to put it in check," Cigi Burton, a spokeswoman with Dixie National Forest, said Monday afternoon. "Things could change, but for right now we're feeling good."

Meanwhile, Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday planned to visit sites damaged by the wildfire, and was holding a 1 p.m. news conference at Brian Head to discuss the current state of affairs of wildfires in the state, and urge Utahns to be diligent in wildfire prevention as they recreate throughout the summer months, according to a news release.

Also Tuesday, fire officials and community leaders planned to meet with residents at 7 p.m. at the Parowan High School auditorium to provide an overview of fire suppression activities and answer questions.

About 976 acres had been burned by Tuesday morning, fire officials said.

The fire was 4 percent contained by nightfall — several edges appeared to be fully snuffed out on the drive up State Route 143 to the town on Monday morning. Temperatures were expected to rise into the mid-70s for much of the week, toasty for the ski resort town, which sits at an elevation of 9,600 feet.

A news release Monday night said 420 firefighters were on the scene, many digging fire lines under the direction of a regional incident management team, Burton said. About six aircraft, including air tankers and helicopters, continued to douse flare-ups, along with 23 engines and 11 crews. The fire was most active on the northern edge, farthest from town limits, Brian Head town manager Bret Howser said Monday afternoon.

Howser was awake and working — communicating with media and concerned residents — for 29 of the first 32 hours that the fire was active. Finally, on Sunday night, he allowed himself to get five hours of sleep.

"We feel pretty confident about it," he said. "There's a good, strong perimeter created around this fire, and crews are on top of it."

A so-called "very large" air tanker — the size of a large passenger plane — had departed the scene by Monday, Burton said.

The big tanker and other air resources were the primary reason only one home was destroyed and three were damaged Saturday, Burton said. But she warned more homes may have been damaged as firefighters haven't yet had an opportunity to inspect some neighborhoods.

The resort town includes about 1,200 homes and condos, along with a handful of hotels and stores around the ski resort. It has about 100 full-time residents. Many were able to stay with nearby family, officials said, and those staying in cabins headed back to their homes. Brian Head is a popular vacation destination for Las Vegas-area residents.

"Had we not had aerial resources available, we could've potentially lost a lot more structures," Burton said. "They are able to put retardant in areas we aren't able to get to [otherwise]."

Burton said officials had yet to determine when about 750 residents and visitors who evacuated Saturday would be allowed back to their homes and cabins. Howser said it most likely would not be any earlier than Wednesday.

Cary Hutchison's cabin is perched a half-mile or so up the hill from where the fire started, and it was among the worst damaged in the blaze. The Las Vegas resident said her son and a few friends were there Saturday for a weekend getaway when they heard a plane buzz over the cabin. Moments later, ash began to fall.

"It had come up so fast," Hutchison said in a telephone interview Monday. Her son and his friends quickly realized they had to leave, she said.

The cabin was featured in aerial TV coverage, Hutchison said, and for a while late Saturday, she was sure it was a total loss — it appeared in one clip as if there were flames coming from the roof.

"It was scary. First reports were it was gone," she said. "We believed it had gone up."

Firefighters saved it — though they did chop out the deck, which had caught fire. The caretaker for the cabin, who also is a Brian Head town employee, inspected the damage Sunday, Hutchison said, and sent her photos of broken windows and singed siding. The fire nearly surrounded the structure, she said, which now resembles a "burnt marshmallow."

A dirt driveway surrounds the cabin, and the family has thinned out the woods nearby. That space, Hutchison believes, is a big reason firefighters were able to save it. She plans to inspect the damage next weekend.

About a week ago, American Fork resident Dave Spillman bought a small, "rustic" Brian Head cabin, and he was staying there Saturday when the blaze broke out.

That morning, Spillman and his brother were walking the property, and noted numerous dead trees and fallen branches — so much it was difficult to walk around. It appeared to Spillman like he needed to create a buffer of cleared area — what firefighters call "defensible space" — around his cabin, in case of a wildfire.

"Thirty minutes later, we're in the cabin and hearing the sirens go off," Spillman said in a telephone interview.

Spillman and his brother went out to see what was going on; he ended up capturing a photograph just above the "S-curve" on State Route 143, shortly after the blaze began and started to move uphill toward Brian Head. (Officials have only said the blaze was human-caused, citing an active investigation. But multiple residents have said it appeared it started when someone's burn pile got out of control.)

Soon, town marshals told Spillman and others to evacuate, though he watched the blaze advance for several hours from a high point on the opposite side of town.

"It was so massive," Spillman said. "I'm surprised it hasn't burned more cabins, to be honest."

Much of the burn area included trees killed by bark beetles nearly two decades ago. But it remained unclear Monday what role the dead fuel played in the fire's rapid advance. Some residents expressed surprise that the fire had moved so quickly, considering the high-elevation town is still very green with foliage. Creeks continue to drain a few patches of snow near the top of the ski lifts.

Howser said Brian Head firefighters had conducted fire fuel mitigation projects around town in recent years, which may have also helped lessen the damage.

But he said he was already talking with other town officials about how residents and cabin owners could do a better job of clearing defensible space. An updated town ordinance could be in the works, he said, requiring residents and cabin owners to clear more deadfall and other brush on their property.

Firefighters saw "less significant" fire activity Monday, the evening news release said, with minimal growth despite high temperatures. Crews made progress toward securing fire lines by implementing "less direct tactics, such as using natural terrain features to contain the fire," the release said.

Fire personnel planned to continue working Tuesday to eliminate hot spots and protect the Brian Head community from the fire, according to the release.

A community meeting about the fire is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Parowan High School auditorium, where members of the incident management team, community leaders and state fire managers will be available to answer questions.

Gov. Gary Herbert also announced Monday night that he would be heading to Iron County on Tuesday "to review the area and work with local leaders."

Brian Head officials posted on their Facebook page that the Marshal's Office would escort guests and residents into the town to get emergency items, such as medications. "You can contact the Highway Patrol at the road closures and let them know your emergency," the post said. "This is for emergencies only; all others will be turned away."

State Route 143 remained closed from Parowan to the junction of Highway 148 near Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Dixie National Forest also has issued road and trail closures, which include Marathon Trail No. 3224 from Forest Road 048 (Sidney Valley), Sidney Peaks Trail No. 3210, Mace's Run Trail No. 3219, Dark Hollow Trail No. 3232, Hendricks Lake Trail No. 3249, and Forest Road 047 (Brian Head Peak Road).


Twitter: @lramseth —

Defensible space can protect homes from wildfires

• Between your home and wildland vegetation, fire safety officials suggest creating a space of at least 30 feet that is clear of propane tanks, firewood, large trees, shrubs, dry and dead vegetation.

• Clean gutters of debris, remove limbs over the roof and build with nonflammable materials. Statistically, the roof is the highest area of ignition on a structure.

• Combustibles such as firewood, picnic tables, boats should be kept away from structures.

• Have fire tools handy such as, ladder long enough to reach the roof, shovel, rake and bucket for water.

• Garden hoses should be connected to outlets.

• Plan in advance a safe area to meet and establish evacuation procedures. Then discuss plans with family and neighbors.

Source: www.utahfireinfo.gov






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