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Blazes keeping fire crews busy

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Utah has a bad case of the summertime blues, with raging wildfires and soaring temperatures.

So many small fires were blazing in extreme southwestern Utah that retardant aircraft were diverted from the huge blaze at the Nebo Loop in order to combat them.

About 1,000 campers and picnickers were evacuated from the Nebo Loop region on Wednesday, said Uinta National Forest spokeswoman Loyal Clark. The fire is pegged at 1,000 acres.

Lightning started the blaze near Birdseye, Utah County, on Monday, and firefighters thought it was 60 percent controlled by Tuesday morning. But storm winds whipped the flames across fire lines.

"We were able to secure three air tankers and two helicopters," and 145 firefighters were on the lines on Tuesday, Clark said. Later a special interagency team arrived from Idaho, Nevada and Utah, boosting the number to 200.

On Wednesday, winds blew the fire into the Salt Hallow drainage, which Clark termed "super heated." The brush "just blew up. The fire went up that drainage and within two hours we had gained an additional 500 acres."

The fire reached the Nebo Loop, and officials evacuated campgrounds and closed the road. Campgrounds were filled, and the evacuation was "a major effort for us last night," Clark said.

"There was so much smoke last night it was difficult to determine . . . the boundaries of the fire." Because of the danger, firefighters were temporarily pulled back from the lines.

The southern fires, all lightning-caused, were so bad that two of the retardant aircraft were shifted from Uinta National Forest to the St. George/Arizona region, Clark said.

"What we have right now are 40 fires that were started between the 2nd and the 4th, and there are still more being reported as we speak," Bette Arial, spokeswoman for Color Country South Zone Interagency Fire Center, St. George, said on Thursday. "All of them are lightning-caused."

One-tree fires were being doused by retardant-dropping aircraft. But two of the fires were more than 100 acres each: on Low Mountain west of St. George and on the Arizona Strip.

"We have all of our resources out" battling the blazes, including 100 firefighters, she said.

Lightning may be the culprit for the Stockton fire, which started about three miles south of Tooele Wednesday evening. The burn is estimated at 600 to 800 acres.

"It's in some pretty rough terrain, steep hills and deep brush," said Teresa Rigby, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management. After the fire started, it "just took off, mostly because of the weather that was over the area at the time."

A trailer used periodically by its owners is about two-thirds of a mile from the fire. "It also burned underneath power lines" on U-36, she said.

"As of yesterday we had about five engines and a water tender" battling the flames, she said. On Thursday, a fire crew arrived from Salt Lake County.

Meanwhile, scorching heat contributed to the extreme fire danger. But some relief may arrive soon in the form of lower temperatures and rain.

Dave Sanders, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service office on North Temple, said many Utah cities were 100 degrees or hotter on Wednesday, with several new records. Areas that hit the century mark but didn't set records included Bluff, 105; Canyonlands National Park, 105; Hanksville, 109; Kanab, 100; Layton, 102; Manti, 103; Milford, 100; Nephi, 103; Price, 100; St. George, 109; Utah Test and Training Range, 103; Wendover, 102; and Zion National Park, 103.

Sanders noted that most reporting locations reached at least 100 degrees.

"There is relief beginning," he said. Thursday's high for Salt Lake City is expected to reach "only" 97 to 101, with a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms. Storm activity is even more likely on Friday.

Northern Utah should cool down until Sunday, when the high could reach its normal level for the date, about 90 degrees, Sanders said. But temperatures may climb again next week.

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com