Related blog: Gunfire started this one, could be fireworks next time
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Evacuated residents of Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain are anxious to go home. But no one was sure when that may happen.
“If you have been evacuated from your home, you will not be going home tonight,” Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy told families Friday night. “We can’t control any facet of (the fire) due to the wind."
The frustrating news was delivered as part of a tense day for residents of the two communities as a wildfire burned dangerously close to several neighborhood subdivisions, forcing between 8,000 and 9,000 residents to flee their homes.
Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love estimated that 1,500 homes had been evacuated, with some residents under a mandatory evacuation order and others leaving voluntarily. Other estimates were a bit lower.
"Absolutely the No. 1 issue is the safety of the residents," she said.
No structures had burned as of Friday evening. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he believed all properties would be protected and hoped residents could be back in their homes by Saturday evening.
"I don't know of any homes in imminent danger," he said.
But the fire has been unpredictable. And Herbert said he was unsure if there would be any residual power problems in the area because several power lines have burned.
Dubbed the Dump Fire because it started near the city landfill, it quadrupled in size Friday to more than 4,100 acres, prompting officials to call for mandatory evacuations as strong winds pushed the blaze within half a mile of some houses.
The winds averaged about 20 mph most of the day in Saratoga Springs with gusts up to 30 mph. The fire was 30 percent contained by late Friday, despite the erratic winds pushing the flames past fire breaks, said Jason Curry of the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Land.
"These winds are a major challenge," he said.
"This is a tough fire to fight," Herbert added. "The wind is really causing havoc. It's jumping roads, 25- to 30-foot gaps."
While Herbert noted that everything that could be done was being done to fight the fire, he said: "It's going to take a significant effort to get it contained."
More than 120 firefighters were battling the blaze and an additional 40 were expected to join the efforts Saturday. Four helicopters, an air tanker and numerous fire engines were assisting. An additional air tanker was scheduled to arrive Saturday, which would greatly help efforts, Curry said.
The evacuation areas included the neighborhoods north of Stillwater Drive and west of Redwood Road. Mandatory evacuations were originally ordered for Kiowa Valley, Eagle Top, Fremont Springs, Silver Lake and Jacob's Ranch subdivisions.
Christian Judd awoke to officials knocking on his door and telling him to evacuate.
"My immediate reaction was: 'So what do I do?' I don't even know. I've never been in this experience before," Judd said. "I just didn't imagine this would happen to us here."
Judd said he worked a night shift, checked the fire from a hillside when he returned home and thought it looked far enough away. But knowing about the wind in the area, he knew things could change quickly.
"The wind can pick up easily and it can shift," he said. "That's what it did."
"It's just crazy. I'm just trying to get pictures and stuff you can't replace," said April, one of the residents who was forced to evacuated her house. "Everybody's really nervous."
Many residents said they grabbed pictures and computers and similar items that were not replaceable. One resident grabbed an Olympic flag in addition to her pictures.
Saratoga Springs resident Noelle Pikus-Pace, who finished fourth in skeleton in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, was also forced to leave her home.
"It's just crazy to see everyone packing up and leaving," she said. "The wind is just so strong out here."
But Pace said it was also "neat" to see the community come together to help everyone evacuate their homes safely.
Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said deputies escorted residents who were cut off from their homes back into the closed areas Friday to quickly grab pets and needed medications.
There were also reports that one firefighter suffered what Curry called a "very minor burn injury" while fighting the wildfire.
The dynamics of the fire situation changed several times throughout the day as officials scrambled to keep up with the latest information to plan for evacuations.
"We're just trying to get information. We've got places to stay tonight, but we just want some information so we can go back," said a frustrated Brian Bainter who was evacuated.
Bainter said his family grabbed a few items from their home before being forced to leave.
"I didn't think (the fire) would really get to us, so we packed some clothes to get us by for a couple of days. Other than that, a couple of pictures, a laptop," he said.
In addition to knocking on doors to alert residents to the evacuation order, police and fire officials used social media such as Twitter and Facebook to get the word out to residents.
"Mandatory evacuations for the entire subdivision of Saratoga Hills and adjacent subdivisions! Please evacuate to Westlake High school as soon as possible. Please do so in a calm and orderly manner," the Saratoga Springs Police Department said in a tweet about 10:45 a.m.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said he has spoken with many residents concerned about losing their homes, but encouraged people to follow evacuation orders for their own safety.
"We've had a couple people reluctant to leave. That seems silly to me," the congressman said.
Not everyone evacuated, however.
Barry Lovellette, 53, said he closed his doors and pulled his shades to make it look like his house was empty, but he opted to stay.
Lovellette, who said he spent 22 years in the military and is a self-proclaimed "weather nut" with his own weather station on his roof, said he was up all night watching the fire.
"I was a little concerned because the wind was blowing west to east, which means the flames may come down the hill," he said. "I did pack my car, I did pack a lot of personal important items. The car is still packed."
But Friday morning, Lovellette said the wind shifted.
"The winds this morning were blowing from the south, they weren't going to come further down the hill," he said. "I didn't feel the need to race out of the area because the local police said it was necessary."
If the wind hadn't shifted, Lovellette said he and his cat Rambo would have likely left. However, he believed his home was completely out of danger late Friday. The closest the fire got to his house Thursday night, he said, was within 400 to 600 yards.
Volunteers step up
Local businesses have been donating food and water to firefighters and evacuated residents, including the Home Depot, Smith’s, Walmart and Del Taco. The Red Cross also provided food and said it would provide meals on Saturday for those who have been evacuated.
Volunteers like Amy Reda were also helping residents leave their homes Friday. Reda can see the fire from her home, but it was not in danger of burning. She and her daughters decided to volunteer to take pets of displaced residents to local shelters.
"I would want someone to help us if they could," she said.
Because pets were turned away from temporary evacuation shelters at area high schools, some owners dropped them at an emergency shelter provided by See Spot Eat in American Fork. The nonprofit shelter, 94 S. 700 East, was overflowing with animal refugees from the Dump Fire, with about 40 dogs and 15 cats arriving in a rush on Friday.
Jessica Graves, director of fundraising for the organization, described the scene as hectic.
“We’re overfull but we still have more on the way,” she said, putting out the plea for more kennels, dog runs and pet food. The organization, which helps keep residents in touch with their animals if they have gone through hard times such as housing displacement, is also working with the Utah Animal Rescue Coalition to get additional supplies. A local rancher from Saratoga Springs was serving as a contact for them to take in large animals.
Herbert said the state would be offering the communities whatever support they need, noting that the state's role in these situations is collaboration and facilitation. He said all entities were working well together.
"The state's role is really to help coordinate the efforts by local communities," Herbert said. "We're making sure we're doing what's necessary to back them up."
A Fire Management Assistance Grant was approved Friday to help with the cost of fighting the fire. The Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to cover 75 percent of the firefighting costs.
The Dump Fire was accidentally started Thursday by target shooters. No criminal charges will likely be filed against the shooters, but civil lawsuits are a possibility, said Curry.
There have been 20 wildfires started this year by target shooters, according to officials. Herbert called it a "foolish activity" to shoot into cheatgrass under the current conditions.
When asked whether he would consider a statewide ban on target shooting under certain conditions, Herbert said one of the biggest problems facing the state was "a lack of common sense" by some residents.
Herbert said, however, that he had contacted city and county leaders to ask them to look at their local fireworks ordinances and consider a ban on fireworks while the fire danger is so high.
"It should be a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach," he commented.
Evacuated residents were encouraged to go to Westlake High School, 99 N. Thunder Blvd. Red Cross officials, however, did not expect a lot of people to stay there overnight.
“We don’t know how many people are going to go to relatives. Utah is a very gracious state,” said Red Cross spokesman Scott Vest.
Liz Mercado said she left her house to run an errand about 10 a.m.
"The sky was all orange and black," she said.
But at that time, Mercado said her neighbors weren't overly concerned about being evacuated. But when she attempted to drive home after her errand, police had started to block off the road. She convinced them to let her go back to her home to grab her dogs and priceless mementos made from her son who passed away. Police told her she had two minutes.
"Can't replace pictures, can't replace other things that were made because we knew he was going to pass away," she said.
Michelle Goertzen was also surprised by the evacuation order.
"They knocked on my door, said really loud, 'We need you to get out.' I said, 'How long?' They said 15 minutes and they stayed there until we left," she said.
The fire was about a mile away from Goertzen's home when she and her family were evacuated. They were able to grab photo albums, important documents and their cat before leaving.
Mike Wren and his wife weren't as lucky. The Wrens, who live in the Jacob's Ranch subdivision, weren't home when the evacuations and closures occurred.
"We were at work and we were both told not to go home," he said.
David Wadley was evacuated from his home in Eagle Mountain.
"There was orange light coming through the blinds in the bathroom so we opened it up. Up the street behind us, there are cop cars coming down the street and they were running up to everybody's house telling them all obviously to get out. We knew what was going on, so then we just stopped, ran upstairs and picked up the kids' bags," he said.
Marcelo Salomone, bishop of the Spanish-speaking LDS Cedar Pass 13th Ward in Eagle Mountain, said about 500 members of his congregation were evacuated. He is offering his church for people displaced by the fire.
"We are ready for them. We have our building open … not just for our people but for everyone," he said.
Salomone said he has lived in the area for 10 years and has never seen a fire like this one. "Stay calm, stay together as a family and be communicative all the time," he encouraged.
Ash from the fire was seen falling in Draper, and smoke could be seen throughout both Utah Valley and the Salt Lake Valley.
Smoke coupled with hot conditions led state air quality regulators to issue a “Red Air” alert for Friday, which is likely to continue into Saturday for Utah, Salt Lake and Davis counties.
Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Donna Kemp Spangler said the abnormally hot temperatures were already pushing these areas into the red zone on Thursday, so smoke from Friday’s fast-moving fire made it worse.
Under these conditions, Spangler said young children and the elderly should remain indoors if at all possible and minimize exposure to the unhealthy air. The conditions also pose trouble for people who suffer from respiratory illnesses and outdoor exertion should be avoided.
Lee said the fire had originally threatened an explosives company, the Dyno Nobel plant in Eagle Mountain, but ended up burning around the plant. "So that's very good news," she said.
Fire crews were also busy Friday battling a 5,000-acre wildfire near Delta. It started about 1 p.m. The cause of the fire was not immediately known.
As of Friday evening, the fire was burning near Highway 6 near the towns of Leamington and Lynndyl.
Related blog: Gunfire started this one, could be fireworks next time
Contributing: Emiley Morgan, Amy Joi O'Donoghue