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Brian Head • As she evacuated two weeks ago, Shelly Calloway was certain her business, the Apple Annie's Country Store, would be destroyed.
When Gary Sylvester left town, he tucked his ATVs in a friend's underground garage, thinking his cabin would probably go up in smoke.
And as Brad Burdsall tracked television coverage of the exploding Brian Head Fire from Florida, he saw footage of flames directly behind his neighbor's home. Burdsall figured his cabin would burn to the ground.
But as residents and cabin owners slowly trickled back into this southern Utah resort town Thursday and Friday after a two-week evacuation order finally lifted they found the damage was not as bad as anticipated. Only one cabin was destroyed shortly after the 60,000-acre blaze ignited June 17, with three more damaged. Brian Head's largest tourist weekend of the summer, the Fourth of July, will go ahead largely as planned.
"We dodged a bullet," said Calloway, who runs the grocery and general store with her husband, Clayton.
[Click here to view a photo gallery from the Brian Head Fire.]
About 10 miles to the east, however, gusty winds continued Friday to fan the flames of the man-made fire, which had grown by about 5,000 acres since Wednesday. Containment rose to 60 percent late Friday.
Approximate location of fire
And residents around Panguitch Lake were still not allowed back into their cabins and homes, except to briefly collect important belongings and take stock of damage. The fire has destroyed a total of 13 residences in Iron and Garfield counties.
Bryce Alexander, a U.S. Forest Service firefighting supervisor, said the Brian Head Fire hasn't behaved like most wildfires in his 22 years of experience. Typically, wildfires slow down when they hit stands of aspen, or a moist creek area. But this blaze has churned through all types of vegetation and terrain with surprising velocity, he said.
Windy and warm conditions haven't helped. Early June 22, the blaze remained well north of Panguitch Lake, far from cabins and businesses. Suddenly that evening, Alexander recalled, the temperature, wind speed and humidity "lined up perfect" for extreme fire growth. Flames raced downhill toward the lake.
"It cooked through here in an hour," Alexander said Friday during a tour of the burn area in Clear Creek Canyon, which contains dozens of high-end cabins.
Firefighters tried to defend structures as best they could, frantically clearing brush and moving flammable material such as firewood. But firefighters could only do so much, Alexander said, considering the sudden shift in conditions and threats to their safety. By the next morning, officials reported nine cabins and several other structures had burned.
The blaze came within about 800 feet of David Ekanger's livelihood, the Rocky Point Boat Dock on Panguitch Lake. It also got close to his cabin, which sits above the lake. The Ekanger family were still renting fishing boats on the morning of July 22. But by that evening, they faced immediate evacuation orders, hurriedly moving their fleet of boats to the opposite side of the lake from the fire.
Ekanger said he's slept better in recent days, knowing the blaze is no longer threatening the lake. But he said he didn't anticipate being evacuated this long right as tourist season hits its peak.
"It's huge for us it's impacted us in the tens of thousands of dollars," Ekanger said of the evacuation. "It's irreplaceable income."
The Calloways, meanwhile, scrambled to restock shelves Friday before holiday weekend visitors arrived. They were still awaiting several deliveries and an employee who hadn't yet made it back to town from Las Vegas. It was unclear what impact the fire might have on business, Calloway said.
"Our summer season had really only just started when we evacuated," she said.
Typically, Brian Head would already be packed by now, several days before the Fourth of July. Town Manager Bret Howser said Friday he hopes news of the fire doesn't keep people away.
The town, and corresponding resort, plans to go ahead with its usual festivities, which include vendors and live music through the weekend. However, some vendors canceled due to uncertainty over the evacuation situation, Howser said, and there will be no fireworks show this year. He is unsure how many tourists might ultimately show up.
For local business owners, Howser said, it may be painful for awhile.
"In the long term, I'm actually kind of hopeful [the fire] could be a good thing for us," he said. "What's the phrase all publicity is good publicity? We're hoping with some strong marketing … that we can turn this into a gain for us. People have now heard of Brian Head all over the place."
The blaze ended up burning within about 100 yards of Burdsall's cabin, which the Las Vegas resident bought in October. The roof and back deck is still speckled with the red patches of fire retardant dropped by air tankers two weeks ago.
Burdsall and his family were on a trip in Florida when the blaze broke out. For about a day, he said, "we just assumed the worst."
But then a remote-controlled security camera mounted inside the cabin suddenly flicked back on the evening of June 18. That's when he knew the cabin was still standing, thanks to the work of firefighters and a private fire defense team hired for free by Burdsall's insurance company.
As soon as he could, Burdsall wanted to return to inspect the damage. Early Friday morning, he sipped coffee on his back deck and looked out over the blackened landscape. It remains an impressive view.
"It's great to be back," he said.