FILLMORE, Millard County — A huge, out-of-control wildfire in central Utah swept over 160,000 acres — 250 square miles — and forced the closure Saturday of more than 100 miles of interstate freeway, prompting the evacuation of dozens of people and leading to two deaths.
The Milford Flat Fire, which officials believe was sparked by lightning Friday afternoon, prompted officials to close 93 miles of I-15 from Scipio, Millard County, to just south of Beaver, and 23 miles of I-70 from I-15 to near Richfield.
"Looking to the north it's just a black wall of smoke," Beaver resident Garry Walker told the Deseret Morning News. "It looks like a big thunderstorm. This is a hell of a fire."
The traffic snarls caused by the I-15 closure resulted in an accident that killed two people, motorcyclists who were stopped at the closure and were hit by a vehicle whose driver failed to see them through the smoke, Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Steve Winward said.
The victims were Roy Rex Redmon, 68, and his wife, Mary Ann Redmon, 65, both of Rowland Heights, Calif. They were southbound on I-15, just south of Kanosh, when they were hit, Sgt. Jeff Nigbur said. The driver who hit them left the scene and has not been found.
In the initial hours following the closures, there were still motorists on the closed section of the freeway, and officials were working to get those people safely out of the area. By 8 p.m., Utah Highway Patrol officials believed all those people were safe and accounted for.
Holly Wagner, a truck driver for the past 10 years, was one of the drivers who found herself on the freeway surrounded by the blaze.
"It was so scary that I called my family and told them I was dying because my truck was engulfed in flames," she told Fox 13 News. A truck in front of her stopped as flames licked its side — the driver, Wagner surmised, was in shock or unsure of what to do.
"There were people up there praying," she said. "It was unreal. It was surreal."
Millard County sheriff's officials evacuated Cove Fort, Millard County, early Saturday evening, Lt. Roger Young said. A few other communities, including Manderfield and Indian Creek, were on alert for possible evacuation. A number of Manderfield cabins have already undergone voluntary evacuations.
Cove Fort includes about 15 to 20 homes, mostly farms and trailer homes for missionaries who volunteer at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' historic Cove Fort site. The fort was built to provide a safe place for pioneer-era travelers to rest as they passed through the area. It was built in 1867 of lava rock at the request of early church President Brigham Young.
Lt. Roger Young said the fort, the homes and a gas station were not damaged as the fire passed through the area, and the evacuations were strictly a safety precaution.
LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said the fort's missionaries had safely evacuated to Richfield.
A number of buildings in both Beaver and Millard counties were burned, mostly farm outbuildings, although one summer home was also burned, Millard County Sheriff Robert Dekker said.
Many hay farmers' crops were also destroyed, and a semitruck on I-15 burned.
Highway Patrol officials estimate about nine semitruck drivers had disconnected their trucks' cabs from their trailers, leaving their loads on the freeway so they could escape the flames.
The fire also threatened several residences, in addition to railroad tracks and bridges.
Initial reports from fire officials said the Blundell Geothermal Power Plant near Milford had been evacuated, but Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said employees remained at the plant.
"They were not in a position to evacuate because they were surrounded by fire," he said.
Eskelsen called the plant "a fairly expansive complex," and he said it is surrounded by a wide swath of land that has been cleared of vegetation to prevent it from being vulnerable to fire.
He said the plant is staffed by employees 24 hours daily, and the four employees on the overnight shift Friday night and Saturday morning remained as the fire burned past them.
"Our guys were watching it closely, of course, and it probably wasn't very comfortable to be there, but everybody's safe," Eskelsen said. "The fire did not get close to the building."
He said the plant feeds electric power into the grid for use throughout Rocky Mountain Power's coverage area. Although the plant itself was unharmed, transmission lines and wooden structures supporting the lines were damaged, and Eskelsen said power was not being sent from the plant to the grid Saturday afternoon. He was unsure of the extent of the damage.
And while truck stops and convenience stores on the north end of the closure reported being unusually quiet as traffic was diverted away from towns like Scipio, accessible communities south of the closure were flooded with unexpected guests.
Most — if not all — hotels and motels in Cedar City were fully booked Saturday night as stranded travelers on their way home from places like Las Vegas, Southern California and St. George sought a last-minute place to stay.
"It's been pretty busy since about 4 or 5 o'clock this evening," said Karrie Gull, who works the front desk at the Abbey Inn in Cedar City. "There's quite a bit of people that just turned around and came back to Cedar City" rather than detouring east to U.S. 89, where law enforcement officials were sending motorists.
Gull said many of the hotel's bookings had come from cell phones as travelers fought traffic on I-15.
"Some people seem like they're a little frustrated, but more people just want to know what's going on and when it will stop," Gull said.
And the closure has meant delays for one industry that relies on easy travel along I-15: trucking.
Ryan DeHaas, an after-hours manager for C R England Inc., a trucking company based in Salt Lake City, said that as of 9 p.m. he had personally spoken to about 10 truck drivers who were trying to figure out how to get around the closure.
"We have had quite a few reports of trucks getting stuck," forced to decide whether to detour far to the west — an estimated 35 extra miles — or to sleep in their trucks for the night and try again tomorrow, DeHaas said. "We have a lot of drivers who depend on I-15."
I-15 remained closed through the night, and Utah Highway Patrol officials planned to evaluate the situation at 8 a.m. today to consider when the freeway can be reopened.
'Just the beginning'
The Milford Flat Fire began at 3:45 p.m. Friday about three miles north of Milford as the result of a lightning strike.
Dry weather and hot winds as high as 45 mph helped the fire grow quickly out of control. By late Saturday afternoon, it was burning close to the freeway and had jumped I-15 near Cove Fort. Saturday evening, there was no information on when firefighters expected to have any containment on the fire.
"It's as dry as it's ever been," Walker said from his Beaver home. "I've lived here 47 years, and I've never seen it this dry, ever." He said he had been on Mount Baldy in Fishlake National Forest — about 12,000 feet above sea level — Saturday afternoon, and even at that altitude the leaves of the quaking aspen were shriveled and the pines looked dry.
And the National Weather Service forecasts more of the same for Utah in the foreseeable future: highs in the 90s and 100s throughout the state — hotter than 110 in much of southern Utah — with dangerously low humidity levels. On top of that, the chance for afternoon thunderstorms — most likely dry storms with the threat of lightning strikes — is about 30 percent for the next few days.
"It's just the beginning," Walker said.
Firefighters from a number of agencies were battling the blaze, including local, state and federal officials. Five-hundred firefighters from the Type I Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, which gathers highly trained firefighters from throughout the country, are expected to arrive at the fire around noon today.
Meanwhile, several field fires in Salt Lake and Utah counties added to smoke in the skies over the Wasatch Front on Saturday. And other fires continued to burn throughout Utah and surrounding states.
Twenty miles south of St. George on the Arizona Strip, the Black Rock Gulch Fire had increased to 6,082 acres Saturday afternoon, advancing to the west, northeast and southeast. About 120 firefighters have been assigned to the fire, which is about 5 percent contained, according to the Arizona Strip District Office.
It did not force any evacuations, though it did threaten a lookout tower, communications equipment and several ranch buildings, and one outbuilding burned. There were no injuries reported.
The Neola North Fire in eastern Utah, which killed three people a week ago, was 60 percent contained Saturday evening and had burned more than 43,000 acres. A number of buildings had been destroyed and others were threatened. The cause of that fire is unknown.
Contributing: Jared Page