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Fire forces evacuation of 185 Pine Valley homes

Reward offered for info about drones interfering with efforts to fight southern Utah blaze

PINE VALLEY, Washington County — A mandatory evacuation was ordered Tuesday for the Lloyd's Canyon area in western Pine Valley as the result of an encroaching wildfire moving within less than a mile from homes.

About 185 homes are affected by the evacuation order, issued due to the lightning-caused Saddle Fire, which spanned about 512 square acres Tuesday. The fire was centered on a steep, rocky area of Saddle Mountain, about 2 ½ miles south of Pine Valley.

Later Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved funds to pay for up to 75 percent of the costs incurred fighting the Saddle Fire. The agency said the fire qualifies for a fund used to assist with "fires that threaten to cause a major disaster."

The evacuations were ordered on the same day the Washington County Sheriff's Office announced a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the owner of a drone who has been hampering suppression efforts of that fire.

Authorities used door-to-door canvassing and phone alerts to notify residents of the secluded town with many seasonal homes about 45 minutes north of St. George. Search and rescue crews assisted about 35 people out of the area, said Washington County sheriff's chief deputy Shauna Jones.

Joe Rechsteiner, a ranger for the Dixie National Forest's Pine Valley Ranger District, said the fire has been pushed downhill by windy conditions and is within a half-mile of some homes.

Some residents were allowed back to their homes in the afternoon to retrieve their belongings. They were required to sign in and out while going back and forth, Jones said. Other parts of Pine Valley were issued voluntary evacuation orders.

John Sorenson, who owns a cabin in Lloyd's Canyon, said he and his wife checked on the cabin Monday night and felt good about its prospects of making it through the fire unscathed. However, the couple returned too late Tuesday to take any more belongings after the fire worsened.

"Hopefully we got everything out (that) we needed to in time," he said.

Many of Sorenson's neighbors are directly threatened by the growing fire, he added.

"I just hope that we can get this fire put out," he said. "There's a lot of structures down below the fire line, maybe 75 homes, cabins, and once that fire breaks that line, it comes down at us and that's what we don't want."

Jones urged residents to sign up for Washington County's emergency alert system at www.911register.com and to include their cellphone numbers. Authorities were struggling Tuesday to contact those who primarily use their cellphones, she said.

Those fleeing the area were invited to the fire station in nearby Veyo, the U.S. Forest Service said.

An information meeting was also held Tuesday evening at the fire station in Pine Valley, 680 E. Main. There, fire managers updated more than 100 residents affected by the fire.

The Pine Valley Recreation Area was also evacuated Tuesday and will be closed for an extended period of time. All hiking trails leading into the Pine Valley Wilderness Area were closed. Baker Reservoir was also closed.

On Monday, all aircraft fighting the Saddle Fire were grounded when a drone "passed within feet of a firefighting helicopter," according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The incident marked the third drone sighting at the Saddle Fire in three days, prompting the sheriff's office to offer the $1,000 reward.

"If there is a strike (of) a rotor or something, it's over for that helicopter," said Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher. "It's putting lives at risk. It's shutting down the operations."

The drone interference has significantly increased fire risk to residents in the area, Pulsipher said.

"They couldn't continue to do what was planned (Monday) in fire suppression and now look at what the fire (has) done (Tuesday)," he said. "It's almost doubled in size, because they weren't able to keep fighting and (had to) shut it down so we could find out what was happening with the drone."

Drones also grounded aerial operations at the combined Pine and Aspen fires, about 13 miles southwest of Cedar City, over the weekend. Those fires were in the mop-up stages Tuesday.

Drones have become such a problem in wildfire areas in recent years that the Utah Legislature passed HB126, which became law last month. The law makes it a misdemeanor to fly unmanned aerial vehicles in a prohibited area, and a felony if a drone collides with firefighting equipment or causes a crash. Severe federal penalties are also possible.

The Saddle Fire was about 356 acres in size Monday night. It was zero percent contained as of Tuesday night after growing more than 150 acres over a 24-hour period, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Mike Ferris.

About 350 firefighters and support staff were assigned to the wildfire, Ferris said. Steep terrain and thick brush presented major obstacles to the fire response, he said.

Also Tuesday, a 50-acre, human-caused fire ignited in the area of Taylor Mountain, about 25 miles north of Vernal.

Kelsey Birchell, a Bureau of Land Management official for the agency's Green River District, said no structures were threatened and no evacuations were in place. Birchell didn't immediately have more details about the start of the fire, though she said it ignited around 4 p.m.

Taylor Mountain Road, located about halfway between the mountain and Vernal, was closed Tuesday. Birchell said the biggest threat associated with the Ashley Fire was poor weather conditions.

"We’ve got extreme weather," she said. "It’s windy and it’s hot."

Officials expected the Ashley Fire would be contained by Wednesday night.

Contributing: Ladd Egan, Troy Cressman

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com; blockhart@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam