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Driven by strong winds and fed by bone-dry fuels, a small brush fire exploded into a massive 250-square-mile inferno Saturday that trapped travelers in a smoky cloud and sent a few dozen rural Utahns scattering from its path.
The fire forced several evacuations, closed two interstate highways and contributed to the deaths of two people whose motorcycle was hit by a car in the confusion.
About 100 firefighters were battling the blaze late Saturday. Some 500 firefighters and a highly trained Type I fire management team are expected to take over efforts to contain the fire following a noon briefing today.
The blaze was first reported at about 3:45 p.m. Friday, and by Saturday morning officials estimated the burn area at 2,000 acres. But winds of more than 40 mph and daytime heat fueled the fire, which exploded to more than 160,000 acres, said Anne Standworth, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management.
³Right now, anything that sparks will ignite a fire,² said Standworth, noting that the landscape is littered with ample amounts of extremely dry brush and other fuels.
Officials said the Milford Flat blaze was one of the largest fires in recent years. The fire comes on the heels of the devastating Neola North fire, which began June 29 and has left three dead and destroyed a dozen homes. That fire by Saturday had consumed more than 42,639 acres and was 55 percent contained.
At around 3 p.m. Saturday, the Utah Highway Patrol closed Interstate 15 from Scipio to south of the town of Beaver a stretch of about 95 miles. Troopers also closed a 28-mile stretch of Interstate 70 from the junction of I-15 to Richfield. UHP was detouring north-south traffic onto U.S. Highways 50 and 89.
"I've never seen a closure this big," said UHP Capt. Bruce Riches, who added the interstates could open again sometime today.
A fire-related traffic accident on I-15 took the lives of a couple traveling on a motorcycle. Roy R. and Mary Ann Redman, a husband and wife from Rowland Heights, Calif., were heading south near Kanosh, Riches said. They slowed or stopped due to fire on both sides of the road and were hit from behind by a passenger car, he said.
Riches said troopers have been unable to find the driver of the passenger car. Almost immediately following that accident, Riches said, five other cars attempting to stop made contact with each other, but there were no serious injuries.
Officials said one seasonal home and about five outbuildings were destroyed near Cove Fort. One or two outbuildings and "a lot of hay" fields were destroyed in Beaver County, said the sheriff there, Cameron Noel.
About three residences near Cove Fort were ordered evacuated, as were about 30 missionaries from the LDS-run historical site of the same name. Millard County Sheriff Robert Dekker said he does not believe the site is in danger.
There also were voluntary evacuations ordered in Beaver County for a few cabins and farms near Manderfield and Pine Creek. Three workers at the Blundell Geothermal Power Plant were also evacuated Saturday.
Marv Turner, the central area manager for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said dry conditions, combined with high winds, proved too much for firefighters Saturday. They tried to combat the flames with backfires as well as airplanes and helicopters, he said.
"It was just so extreme, you couldn't do nothing with it," Turner said. "I've never seen anything move that fast."
Several Milford residents parked atop a hill overlooking the town to watch the flames creep up the eastern face of the nearby Mineral Mountains Saturday. Looking to the northeast, a long row of flames could be seen in the distance.
The fire is burning through sagebrush, juniper and grassland. Thick smoke at times choked the orange-tinted sunlight in the town of Delta, about 75 miles north. A smoky haze could be seen 100 miles to the north of the blaze Saturday afternoon.
Mike Melton, state fire manager for Beaver, Iron, Garfield, Kane and Washington counties, said of the blaze late Saturday: ³Itıs pretty much doing what it wants right now."