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Rescuers risked their lives in inferno

SHARE Rescuers risked their lives in inferno

NEOLA, Duchesne County — Witnesses who tried to save three men killed by a fast-moving wildfire said the blaze was like a swirling tornado of flames.

"We were dodging flames and balls of fire. ... It was like hell. We gave ourselves zero chance to make it in and zero chance to make it out," said Lloyd Arrowchis.

Arrowchis was among a group of people who braved the fire in an attempt to rescue George Houston, 63, his son, Tracy Houston, 43, and Roger Roberson, 75.

All three men perished when they were overcome by the fire, which started about 9 a.m. Friday and by late Monday was estimated to have burned 35,000 acres.

Although his grandfather and father died after being trapped, Duane Houston, 11, escaped after his father yelled at him to run to safety.

Arrowchis said when two EMTs arrived to follow the group in, they stopped momentarily to make the sign of the cross before heading in.

Friday's daring rescue attempt included four members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all of whom nearly lost their own lives.

Stephen Ridley, a Fish and Wildlife officer, knew Roberson and headed to his ranch to help him evacuate after the fire started. He gave a quick call on his radio to his wife, telling her where he was going.

A short time later, Ridley's brother, Ridley Eaglechief, talked to Ridley's wife and, after looking at the roaring fire, knew he too had to go to Roberson's ranch.

"I had a feeling I needed to go back," he said.

In his brother's last radio broadcast, he said, "I have three people that are on fire ... burning ... send help," Eaglechief said.

But when Eaglechief reached the road leading to the ranch, roadblocks had already been set up. Eaglechief, a former police officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was met at the roadblock by his former police chief, Arrowchis.

"I just took off. I said, 'I'm going through,"' Eaglechief said. "He tried to call me on my radio, said, 'Let's talk about it.' I said, 'No.'"

Eaglechief said the side of the road was on fire as he drove to the ranch, and two homes were already engulfed in flames. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his brother's truck, and then saw someone coming down the field trying to help an elderly man.

Eaglechief said he quickly realized it was his brother, Stephen Ridley, who was injured, trying to help Roberson to safety. Roberson was burned on about 60 percent of his body but was still alive, he said.

"The old man's up here," Eaglechief said he relayed on his radio. "Needs an ambulance right away."

Fortunately, Arrowchis decided to follow Eaglechief with current BIA Chief James Beck close behind.

When the group arrived it was already too late for the Houstons, but Roberson was still alive as Stephen Ridley struggled to get him to his truck.

"If we hadn't had gone in when we did, we would have lost them all," Arrowchis said. "We had to go get (Ridley) at whatever the cost ... get him out of there. The fire was so bad we had to leave (the Houstons) there. I don't know how we made it back out."

Arrowchis and Eaglechief said they were encased in smoke and could barely see 20 yards in front them. Eaglechief described it as a "vertical wall" of fire that came down on the Houstons and Roberson.

"It was like a big tornado," he said.

Scott Jaeger was in Farm Creek during the height of the fire, helping friends evacuate, and reported a similar story of seeing six heat tornados created by the fire. At one point the inferno had flames 200 feet tall and was closing in from just a 100 yards away, he said.

"It was unreal," he said. "It was like someone dumped a tanker of gasoline on the road. (The fire) was just walking across the land. You could hear it coming down. ... It was like nothing you ever heard, dude. The heat coming off it was tremendous. This was like nothing I've ever seen."

A media tour of the evacuated areas showed the fire was being herded well north of many of the buildings and into the Ashley National Forest, where the fire can beneficially burn beetle-infested timber. Some of the fire is reaching into extremely steep topography, and officials estimate 12,000 acres of forest land has been charred.

Some outbuildings and structures were damaged, but many homes could be seen surrounded by charred land and protected by a red strip of flame retardant. Some homes were intact, saved only by firefighters' efforts. Officials estimate about a dozen structures have been lost, but it is unclear if they were homes, cabins or barns.

Rocky Mountain Operation Section Chief Jay Esperance said the fire was being knocked back on the east and south fronts.

"We've made outstanding progress," he said.

Esperance expected Monday to be the day requiring the highest number of fire crews. At at briefing Monday afternoon, officials said the weather would be key to fighting the fire.

"We're not seeing much out there in terms of a break," said Marc Mullenix, Rocky Mountain incident commander, adding that the fire's behavior is so extreme it is creating its own weather.

"Mother Nature just isn't cooperating with us as much as we'd like."

Between 250 to 400 residents of the small town of Whiterocks — mostly members of the Ute Tribal Nation — were allowed to return to their homes Monday morning, but the Farm Creek area remained off limits.

E-mail: preavyy@desnews.com