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Firefighters cleaning up

Blazes stretched departments' resources thin

"It was one of those nights that is once in a career," said Salt Lake City fire spokesman Scott Freitag.

An extraordinary evening of wildfires burning at nearly every end of the Salt Lake Valley stretched the resources of local fire departments as far as they could possibly go Thursday night.

"I can't recall a time we have been so busy at the same time with so much fire in this valley," Freitag said. "There were times (Thursday) night we had just enough resources to handle everything coming in. If we had had one more incident, we would have had trouble getting to it. At one time, all three of our radio channels had working incidents. I can't recall ever having that."

Mop-up work at some of the remaining hot spots continued Friday.

In addition to the fires in Salt Lake County, there were more than a dozen fires in Utah, Tooele, Davis, Juab, Sanpete and Weber counties Thursday.

A haze of smoke blanketed the Salt Lake Valley from at least four major fires all burning at the same time.

The fire that caused the most problems in Salt Lake County was near Salt Lake City International Airport, where strong and erratic winds fueled a brush fire that started near 700 South and 4800 West about 6:30 p.m. About 80 acres were blackened. The cause of the fire was still being investigated Friday.

The fire forced the closure of I-80 for about two hours. The wind eventually pushed the fire over I-80 and carried it toward the airport.

The situation became very tense at one point while I-80 was closed and the wind changed direction, pushing the flames toward the road.

"We were concerned we were going to lose vehicles," Freitag said. "You could tell in the voices of veteran firefighters this was an extremely dangerous and unpredictable fire. We had to actually open the freeway long enough to get the cars out of there. Those were some very tense moments. (The fire) kept jumping fences and ditches and roads."

The wind also created problems for planes landing at the airport. Three flight attendants on a Delta flight from Oakland, Calif., to Chicago had to be checked in Salt Lake City when severe turbulence tossed them around during landing, causing bumps and bruises, said airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann.

The high winds forced the closure of the airport's western runway for a couple of hours, Gann said.

A total of 17 flights were diverted, landing in either Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho, or Rock Springs, Wyo., until they could return to Salt Lake City and land, she said. The runway was reopened for departures only by 10 p.m. The majority of diverted flights came back about midnight.

By that time, however, most passengers had missed their connecting flights. Between 200 and 250 people were forced to spend the night in the airport. Mattresses were handed out to those people, and one of the concession stands stayed open late for them, Gann said.

By 8:30 a.m. Friday, all of the stranded passengers had been placed on connecting flights and had left Utah.

The fire destroyed a restroom at the Wingpointe Golf Course. There were no injuries.

While crews were battling the fire near the airport, at least three other fires around the valley kept crews busy.

The largest was a four-alarm fire at the landfill in South Jordan. The fire forced the closure of state Route 111 near the Old Bingham Highway. Crews needed about six hours to bring the fire under control.

Crews from the Unified Fire Authority were called to a two-alarm fire at a vacant house about 8:45 p.m. Thursday. When they arrived at the house, near 1600 East and 4500 South, they found the structure fully involved.

UFA Capt. Clint Smith said the biggest challenge for firefighters was preventing high winds from pushing the flames to other nearby structures. Crews needed about three hours to put the fire out. A cause was still being investigated Friday.

Also in Salt Lake City Thursday night, remaining crews that were available responded to a house fire near 1900 South and 1000 East that left four people homeless. No one was injured.

"We were so busy last night," said Freitag, who noted that firefighters who were off duty were called to help.

Officials Friday were keeping an eye on the weather as another front was expected to blow into the Salt Lake Valley by the afternoon.

"We'll get a weather report every two hours. Every hour we'll check the areas (at the airport), make sure there are no new flare-ups," Freitag said.

e-mail: preavy@desnews.com