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Foresters defend setting of blaze

Wildfire is still raging; pollution levels on rise

National forest officials continue to defend their decision to start a fire that got out of control and has scorched 4,300 acres on the east side of Provo Canyon.

Uinta National Forest spokeswoman Loyal Clark said the Cascade Springs burn was intended to clear 600 acres of dense oakbrush and undergrowth. The planned fire turned sour when unexpected winds took control of the fire. Officials still cannot estimate when firefighters will contain or control the blaze.

Clark said forest officials carefully followed a 33-point checklist. Protocol requires a burn to be terminated if a single point on the list can't be checked off. Clark said a National Weather Service spot weather forecast failed to predict 20 to 25 mph gusts that caused the blaze to jump across South Fork Deer Creek Road.

An investigation team from the Uinta National Forest's regional office in Ogden will be at the site sometime at the end of next week, Clark said. The group will investigate both the prescribed burn as well as the wildfire.

Prescribed burns are common and don't often get out of hand, said a spokeswoman for the federal agency that oversees the Forest Service.

"We do prescribed burns all the time," said Heidi Valetekevitch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We do more that are safe and are executed without the fire escaping. By and large, we do prescribed burns effectively."

The blaze is being fought by two air tankers, six helicopters and a total of 10 20-person crews from Nevada, Arizona and other Western states.

As the fire rages on, a thick plume of smoke is leaving residents with itchy eyes and scratchy throats.

Pollution levels in Utah County are markedly higher than the amount of pollutants in the air in Salt Lake County, said Cheryl Heying, air quality planning branch manager at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

"The pollution levels in the two valleys right now show that Utah County, indeed, is winning in terms of pollution — or losing, I guess as the case may be," Heying said.

The Utah DEQ reissued a health advisory Thursday advising senior citizens, children and anyone with heart disease or breathing problems to stay indoors to avoid the thick smoke. "If you are having problems, get out of the pollution," Heying warned.

School districts are still on edge about how much outdoor physical exertion they should allow students.

Salt Lake County school districts left it up to the principals at each school to decide whether or not they should keep their students inside for recess. The children at Jordan School District schools all played outside at recess Thursday, said district spokesman Michael Kelly.

All children in the Alpine and Provo school districts stayed inside for recess for a second consecutive day. Only those students with asthma or other breathing problems stayed indoors in Nebo and Wasatch district schools.

No sporting events were canceled at any of Jordan School District's schools, a spokesman for the district said. Athletic events in both the Alpine and Provo school districts were either canceled or moved to sites in southern Utah County, where the smoke isn't as bad.

Juab County is only experiencing a light haze, and residents in Tooele County say all they can see are sunny skies. At one point today, spots in Utah County had less than a mile of visibility, said Mark Eubank, chief meteorologist for KSL-TV Channel 5.

"The high pressure has all the air sinking," Eubank said. "We're stewing in our own juices, and there is no change for two days at least."

Meanwhile, Saturday's scheduled Brigham Young University football game, against the Air Force Academy, will go on despite the haze.

BYU officials say the show will go on — the team is locked into big-money television contracts to air the game on regional television. Team spokesman Jeff Reynolds joked about the smoke, saying, "Most of our guys are from L.A., so they are probably used to this."

"It's definitely going to take more than this to reschedule or cancel that game," said Dr. Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah County Health Department. Miner said fans shouldn't worry, the smoke won't do much harm. "But for certain individuals it's going to be irritating or aggravating."


E-MAIL: ldethman@desnews.com