NEW HARMONY, Washington County — Calling it an "all hands on deck" situation, Gov. Gary Herbert said firefighting resources from all over the state and the Mountain West, including a couple of hundred Type 1 wildfire crews, will be on hand today to battle an out-of-control wildfire that destroyed nearly a dozen structures in the town of New Harmony over the weekend.
At least 11 buildings, including a primary residence estimated by neighbors to be worth between $500,000 to $1 million, a guest cabin, a secondary home and at least eight outbuildings (including barns and sheds) had been destroyed by the fire as of Sunday evening.
The good news, however, is there were no injuries.
Also Sunday, the National Forest Service issued an apology to the residents of New Harmony and the governor promised to find ways to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
"I'm very sorry to the community of New Harmony for their losses," said Bevan Killpack, Pine Valley District ranger for the Dixie National Forest.
Many New Harmony residents, however, were angry at the Forest Service on Sunday, saying the fire should have been put out long ago, when it was small and manageable. Some of those residents expressed their frustrations Sunday night at a town hall meeting with Forest Service officials.
Others, who were evacuated, gathered at a convenience store just off I-15 at the New Harmony exit and watched in anger as the mountainside around their homes burned.
"I'm upset. I'm very upset," said Don Ondrisko, who left Thursday night to visit his other cabin in another area, only to be denied access to his New Harmony home when he returned. "They thought (the fire) was doing more good than bad (in its initial stages), and now look at what you got. Somebody made a big mistake. All this could have been avoided."
Just last Wednesday, a town meeting was held with officials from the Forest Service. Many residents voiced their opinions during that meeting that they wanted the effort to put out the fire stepped up. At least one longtime resident even predicted the fire would grow out of control if they didn't, said Teresa Larsen, who owns a house with her husband and children in New Harmony.
"It's a shame. It didn't have to happen," she said. "It's just sad. The town has been begging, 'Get this thing out.' It just didn't have to happen," she said. "They had so many chances when it was so small."
Still others felt someone simply made a "severe miscalculation" on managing the fire.
But the both the Forest Service and the state said that because of the way the laws are written on fighting fires on federal land, it's doubtful they would have done anything differently.
Herbert took a helicopter tour of the area Sunday afternoon.
"I guess what we learn from this is Mother Nature is still in charge," Herbert said.
The Mill Flat fire was started by a lightning strike on July 25. Because of the law, the naturally sparked fire was the only way crews could get rid of the thick dead brush that had accumulated from a beetle infestation. Crews had been keeping a close eye on the fire, which Forest Service officials said was doing its job of not only getting rid of dangerous dry brush but also making way for aspen to grow.
But on Saturday, the "perfect storm" for an out-of-control fire erupted. Unpredicted strong and erratic winds, combined with high temperatures and low humidity, caused the fire to grow from 5,000 to 10,000 acres in 24 hours, Killpack said. To make matters worse, the Forest Service was prepared to make water drops using helicopters, but the main column of smoke collapsed, blanketing the region in a thick haze that prevented the choppers from flying. The result was the fire jumped past several fire breaks and rushed down the canyon toward structures, a couple of which were burned and others damaged when the heat melted their aluminum siding.
"I feel bad about that. We had no intention of that. We were basically trying to make the community safe," Killpack said.
The primary concern for firefighters this week will be protecting structures, Killpack said. The most challenging part of fighting the fire, however, will be the weather. Strong winds pushed smoke from the fire into much of the western part of Iron County Sunday.
Herbert said that after the fire is out, he wants to get together with state and federal agencies, maybe even take a trip to Washington, D.C., to look at whether the "best practices possible" are being used so firefighters won't have to feel like their hands are tied when a situation like this happens again.
Residents who did not leave their homes said they had their cars packed and were ready to go at a moment's notice. A reverse 911 call went out Sunday morning warning residents to leave the area.
The Prince family lost a pontoon boat when a shed on their property burned, but their house was spared when the fire was stopped as it came within an estimated three-eighths of a mile.
Sunday afternoon, the family stood watch over the unpredictable fire.
"The biggest stress right now is the wind — it's really erratic," Palonnie Prince said. "I've got all my stuff packed and am ready to go if I need to."
Prince said she had mixed emotions about letting the fire burn. She said the brush in the area was indeed thick.
"You can't predict everything," she said.
Lowell Prince, who is also a town board member, said although he stayed, he felt better Sunday after the majority of homes were evacuated and residents moved out of harm's way.
The governor, who also extended his condolences to those who had lost property, said there will be plenty of time after the fire is extinguished to figure out what could have been done differently. But because of the nature of fire laws on federal land and the unpredictability of the weather, he's not sure if anything else could have been done.
The main group of 200 homes in New Harmony were believed to be out of danger Sunday night barring any more dramatic shifts in the weather, Killpack said. There were still concerns, however, over about two dozen homes in the outlying areas both to the north and south of town.
If all goes well, Killpack said, evacuated residents could be back into their homes by Tuesday or Wednesday and the fire could be under control in a week.