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Big Pole fire grows to 44,000 acres

Skull Valley blaze leads to evacuations and road closures

Fire crews across the state have their hands full with a total of nearly 60,000 total acres burning in various parts of the state, the largest blaze spanning 44,000 acres in Tooele County.

The Big Pole fire, located in Skull Valley near Grantsville, was started by lightning around 10 a.m. Thursday and had grown to 1,200 acres by late afternoon, said Erin Darboven of Northern Utah Interagency Fire. The fire was the top priority of the four that were actively burning in Tooele County, Darboven said.

By Friday afternoon, the fire had grown to 44,000 acres. Closures and evacuations have been prompted by the fire's rapid growth. State Route 196, also known as Skull Valley Highway, runs through the area and has been closed indefinitely. The fire also prompted temporary closures on sections of I-80 Thursday.

Four ranches have been evacuated, and one of them has been engulfed, Darboven said, though most of the damage has been to the land. Only one home has been affected, but the fire has destroyed four outbuildings. Officials said 20 residents, 12 outbuildings and two commercial properties are currently threatened.

Crews are focusing their efforts on the east side of the fire and have already closed all forestlands on that east side, Darboven said.

Bureau of Land Management fire information officer Susan Marzec said the incident management teams are made up of specialists from around the country who are called in for big blazes, utilizing their skills to quickly manage fires.

Crews set up something resembling a "little city" and can do so "almost immediately," Marzec said.

"It works very quickly," she said. "They can set up in less than 24 hours. It's a very slick organization."

Marzec said Utah is the only state besides Alaska with any significant fire activity.

"In the lower 48, it's pretty much us with all of the fires," she said. "The good news is that means there are resources available to us, and we're not stretched as far as we often are."

Marzec said there is already a "significant number of people" working on the fires and that they are planning to bring in more. She estimates there were 300-400 total people statewide managing fires Thursday night.

Another lightning-caused Tooele County blaze, the Settlement fire in Settlement Canyon, grew to 120 acres and led to a voluntary evacuation of area campgrounds and Camp Wapiti.

Jason Curry with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said the campground is a popular site for family reunions and organized camping trips and that it can be "a pain" for those who have to be evacuated.

"It actually makes it easier to evacuate on the front end when they can take the time to get what they need and get out as opposed to, 'You've got to go now, and you've got two minutes,' " Curry said.

About 50 firefighters are working the fire, he said, and they were expecting two helicopters sometime Friday as well. Firefighting efforts were also aided by high humidity Thursday night, Curry said.

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com