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Crews continue to battle 'inaccessible' Saddle Fire

PINE VALLEY, Washington County — The lightning-caused Saddle Fire has been raging for nearly two weeks, and fire officials say its inaccessibility has kept it at only 5 percent containment.

The fire began June 13 from a lightning strike on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness of Dixie National Forest, just about 2 ½ miles southwest of Pine Valley.

The fire covered 1,193 acres Saturday, but officials expect it to continue to grow, especially in areas with steep ridges and thick conifer trees.

Officials estimate fighting the fire has cost $3.6 million so far and will continue to increase. Daily costs are estimated at more than $400,000.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office issued a voluntary evacuation order for Pine Valley residents. Residents are encouraged to be prepared for immediate evacuation if fire conditions change.

As of Saturday night, crews identified threats to 500 residents and 500 other structures in Pine Valley, and flames from the fire come as close at ¾ of a mile to residential structures, through uneven mountainous terrain.

Visitors to Pine Valley are asked to stay out of the area, according to a news release. The Pine Valley Recreation Area in Dixie National Forest is also closed.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Mike Ferris recommends residents and visitors to Pine Valley to "find a different place to recreate."

Ferris said roads in the Pine Valley area are scattered with vehicles and equipment devoted to stopping the fire, which could make it difficult for traffic.

According to Ferris, 590 people were assigned to the fire Saturday, including 18 20-person firefighter crews.

There are no safety zones for firefighters, and crews are still searching for areas to hold the fire to keep it from spreading to other nearby communities, fire officials said.

On Saturday, crews employed two of what Ferris called "heavy helicopters," each carrying 2,500 gallons of retardant or water.

As of Saturday, the fire was most active in the Lloyd and Forsyth canyons where it was fueled primarily by "downed logs and underbrush in the conifer stands," the news release states.

Ferris said the fire continued to spread Saturday night because of "pockets of fuel" found in the area.

Hot temperatures and "erratic and sporadic" winds have made it difficult to control the fire, he said.

Ferris said the fire will not be completely controlled until monsoonal rains come, which he doesn't expect anytime soon. He said he expects crews to be working for at least three or four more weeks "just to contain it, and box (the fire) in, so it's not going to threaten a community."

"This is so far back into the wilderness, there will continue to be smoke and fire smoldering and creeping around in there until it rains," Ferris said.

Because of thick smoke throughout the area, Ferris warns anyone with respiratory problems — especially the elderly, young children and those with asthma — to stay indoors or leave the area.

Crew members had suffered two minor heat-related injuries by Saturday, so Ferris said he is pushing the importance of constant hydration.

Wade Izatt, whose family owns a home in Pine Valley, said he is pleased with the cooperation and efforts of crews in the area.

"It's really organized," Izatt said Saturday, "well-executed and thought out. They're picking their battles and not wasting resources."

Izatt and his family evacuated to stay with friends and family in St. George after their home was ruled "at risk" by officials, he said Saturday.

Izatt said firefighters are in for "the long haul." Even though he does not think the fire will have a "quick fix," Izatt said he believes "things are going in the right direction."

"I'm pretty confident it'll resolve in a good way," he said, "after a little bit of time."

In Box Elder County on Saturday, another fire was raging in the Peplin Mountains south of Kelton.

The fire, which was reported about 5:30 p.m. Friday, has grown to around 8,000 acres and was 85 percent contained Saturday evening and is planned for full containment at 6:00 p.m Sunday, officials said.

Crews from Box Elder County, Park Valley, Snowville, Corrine, Thatcher Penrose, Garland and Fielding assisted with the fire Saturday, along with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands and the Bureau of Land Management.

Police said the fire was started by a camper who was cooking on a charcoal grill when the wind came up and tipped the barbecue over, igniting the dry grass.

One person was injured while attempting to put out the fire before fire crews arrived, police said.

Email: ahobbs@deseretnews.com