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Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins watched Thursday as hotshot firefighter crews scrambled to save cabins surrounding Panguitch Lake, a popular southern Utah vacation destination.
They "put their lives on the line" to dig fire lines and move firewood and other flammable material away from structures, he said, while flames devoured trees and brush hundreds of feet away. Some 150 cabins, many in the Clear Creek area northwest of the lake, continued to be immediately threatened by the roaring Brian Head Fire, which grew to 37,560 acres by Saturday morning, up from 27,724 a day earlier. Crews had the fire 5 percent contained.
"Those guys are heroes," Perkins said Friday. "I personally witnessed them save dozens and dozens of cabins. They was up there fighting, right up on the porches of these cabins."
Despite the firefighters' best efforts, however, nine of the cabins were lost on Thursday night.
A Type 1 incident management team a squad with the highest level of experience was ordered Friday evening, and would join the current Type 2 team.
Because of the size of the fire and the travel time required to get to parts of the blaze, the area would be divided between the two teams, said Great Basin Incident Management Team spokeswoman Jesse Bender.
Officials and media were evacuated from a staging area at Lake Panguitch on Friday evening, said Shayne Ward, spokesman for Utah's Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
"The fire was getting a little too close for our comfort, and we wanted to give folks ample time to get out to a safe area," Ward said.
Thick smoke prevented firefighters from safely using helicopters and air tankers for much of Thursday, officials said, though conditions appeared to be clearing slightly Friday and several helicopters were refilling water buckets at the lake.
High temperatures and strong winds have primarily pushed the fire northeast since it began. But late Thursday afternoon, the winds shifted and pushed to the southeast, causing the blaze to spread down Clear Creek, which drains into Panguitch Lake. That's when the additional cabins, as well as six outbuildings, were burned.
Weather conditions improved Friday, with winds pushing the fire southeast, but firefighters believe the fire may grow, according to a news release from the Great Basin Incident Management Team. The wind should calm down on Sunday before returning Monday, the release stated.
Panguitch Lake is about 10 miles east of the resort town of Brian Head, where the human-caused blaze was sparked on Saturday. The fire was just 5 percent contained Friday morning, reduced from 15 percent earlier in the week as hundreds of residents and vacationers remained under evacuation orders.
So far, a total of at least 13 residences and eight outbuildings have been destroyed, including three cabins in the Horse Valley area and one in Brian Head.
Mark Cusimano's family cabin is in the Clear Creek drainage, a mile from the lake. The Henderson, Nev., resident and his dad built the cabin 19 years ago, chipping away on the project every weekend for a year. "It's just sentimental," he said Friday.
Cusimano, who was not at the cabin when the fire broke out, has been trying to glean information wherever he can about whether the cabin was damaged or destroyed. He's talked with neighbors, and kept a close eye on news reports. Some neighbors sent him photos as the blaze approached, showing a massive wall of flames rising just behind his cabin.
"I can't function at work," he said. "You just want an answer is it up or is it down?"
On Thursday morning, resort and boat rental business owners on Panguitch Lake had reported they were still open, serving the few customers who decided to stick around through the smoke.
But the fire shifted suddenly: By Friday, none of the businesses surrounding the lake answered their phones as the entire area was placed under a mandatory evacuation order.
In Facebook posts, employees said they were uncertain about when they would open again. "Closed until further notice," Panguitch Lake Resort wrote. "We love you all and hope to see you soon," the Panguitch Lake General Store posted.
On Friday, the winds shifted and began pushing the fire to the northwest, said Cigi Burton, a spokeswoman with Dixie National Forest. Significant fire growth was expected to continue into the weekend due to the extreme weather conditions and dry fuels, she said.
Areas under evacuation include Panguitch Lake, Horse Valley, Beaver Dam, Blue Springs, Rainbow Meadows, Dry Lakes, Second Left Hand Canyon and the town of Brian Head. Hundreds of cabins in the Mammoth Creek area south of Panguitch Lake also were evacuated Friday, Perkins said.
State Route 143 remained closed between the towns of Parowan and Panguitch.
The Red Cross was operating an evacuation shelter at Panguitch High School, 390 E. 100 South, for those displaced by the fire.
Southern Utah University in Cedar City also offered dormitory rooms to residents displaced by the fire. A community meeting about the fire is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Panguitch High School.
Additional crews and other firefighting resources continued to arrive.
As of Friday, more than 800 personnel across 23 firefighting crews were on the scene. There were 11 helicopters, 34 engines, and several air tankers on the scene.
Authorities warned of thick smoke in the area, saying those with sensitivities especially children and the elderly should limit time outdoors.
Perkins said he drove his truck around the lake Friday morning, and surveyed some of the damage in Clear Creek.
"You literally couldn't see the end of your truck hood because of the smoke that had settled in around the lake," he said.
The fire has grown exponentially this week, to roughly the same size as the city of Provo. Five days ago, it spanned about 1,000 acres.
It started Saturday by someone near Brian Head using a weed torch, Gov. Gary Herbert tweeted earlier this week.