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NEOLA - Eleven-year-old Duane Houston ran for his life as flames and hot smoke filled the air, obscuring his father and grandfather who lagged behind in the field.
He had been told to make a run for the truck as a wall of fire rolled down the mountain into the small community of Farm Creek in the foothills of the Uinta mountains.
"I ran and couldn't find the truck," the boy said Saturday, "so I kept running through trees, climbed two fences and followed the road.'
Duane Houston made it to safety, but his father, Tracy Houston, 43, and his grandfather, George Houston, 63, died in a raging wildfire that has prompted evacuations, a plea for federal assistance and destroyed an undetermined number of structures. The Houstons, of Neola, had gone to 75-year-old Roger Roberson's farm to buy hay, and were helping him to move a set of field sprinklers in an attempt to keep the flames at bay.
Roberson died after being flown to University Hospital in Salt Lake City for burns and smoke inhalation.
The deaths were a first, said Sheldon Wimmer, state fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management. In his 37 years of working wildfires, Wimmer said, no one has ever died in a wildfire who wasn't involved in fighting the blaze.
A Sunday forecast for hot, windy weather bodes ill for firefighters who are just beginning to organize an attack on a blaze that has now burned into the Ashley National Forest and threatens to explode. There were only about 100 firefighters working on the Neola North wildfire Saturday, aided by heavy tankers dropping retardants and two helicopters dropping water on hot spots.
State and federal firefighters began streaming into the area Saturday afternoon for what looks to be a long battle. A federal Type I fire management team used for the most serious wildfires was scheduled to begin fighting the fire this morning.
Fire officials said Saturday the blaze had burned through grass and brush and juniper and is now burning into heavier timber as it moves north and east. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
By afternoon, the blaze had grown well beyond the Saturday morning estimate of 14,000 acres. Fire officials said the blaze was zero percent contained and burning out of control.
The fire, which originated north of Neola Friday morning, burned eastward with prevailing winds, said Uintah County Sheriff Jeff Merrell. Friday evening, winds rushed down the mountainside and a "wall of fire" swept into the small community of Farm Creek, near Whiterocks, between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Edson Gardner, 44, of Ft. Duchesne, drove to Farm Creek to evacuate his elderly mother as the fire swept into town.
"It came down the canyon like a herd of horses. That's what it was like," he said Saturday evening. "The sheriff told us we had five minutes to get out. You could feel the heat. I was scared."
Gardner got his mother, Colleen Gardner, to safety. But her house burned to the ground.
George and Tracy Houston had plenty of time to escape the fire, said Tracy Houston's brother-in-law, Bret Goodrich, but stayed to help Roberson. It was a gesture typical of the Houstons, Goodrich said.
"They were always helping somebody," he said.
When the fast-moving fire was suddenly upon them, Duane Houston was told to run to the truck while Tracy Houston stayed behind to help his straggling father, Goodrich said.
Farm Creek and Whiterocks have been evacuated, but the nearby towns of LaPoint and Tridell have not. Multiple structures had burned by Saturday evening, but Sheriff Merrell said he did not have an accurate count.
Gwennita Tahguv said she and her four children were evacuated from her Whiterocks home just before midnight Friday. She said she was praying her house would be spared. Sheriff's deputies told her she could not return to her home for three to four days.
"We went back up to get some personal things Saturday afternoon, but they came by and told us we had to leave again," she said.
Not everyone in Whiterocks agreed to leave their homes, said area resident Luke Duncan.
"Some people refused to go," said Duncan, who found refuge in Ft. Duchesne. "It's no fun to be evacuated."
Gov. Jon M. Huntsman has made a formal emergency declaration to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in an effort to gain more federal funds to fight the fire.
"It's extremely dangerous, and moving very quickly," he said from Neola Saturday. "We can't remember when civilians were killed in a wildfire."
The governor flew over the fire Saturday afternoon in a helicopter and said the blaze, which is moving though rugged terrain and dry forest conditions, will be difficult to get under control.
"It's about as frightening a sight as I've ever seen," he said.
The U.S. Forest Service continued to sweep the area, looking for campers who may be in the fire's path, said Kevin Elliott, supervisor of the Ashley National Forest.
"At this point, there are no closures, but that could change," he said. "We have a lot of anxiety as this fire moves into the forest."
Boy Scout Troop 745 from the Salt Lake area marched out of the Uintas Saturday afternoon as smoke filled the air.