UINTAH, Weber County — Multiple houses were lost Tuesday as winds pushed a fast-moving grass fire out of Weber Canyon and into neighborhoods, forcing as many as 900 people from their homes.
At least six structures — five of which are believed to be homes — were consumed in the fire, Weber County Fire Marshal Brandon Thueson said. Information was not yet available about how many other buildings have been burned, but 300 homes were believed to be threatened.
"We know there are numerous other structures that have been affected, but we don't have a total count for some of the ones that received more minor damage," Thueson said.
Heavy winds fanned the flames across what was initially estimated to be 1,200 acres, Thueson said. After GPS mapping was done by helicopter, the fire was found to be 619 acres, but still with zero containment.
Officials reported late Tuesday that the fire, which started shortly after 7 a.m., remains under investigation but is believed to be human caused.
Evacuation orders for the Uintah Highlands neighborhood remained in place Tuesday evening and may extend overnight. The Dee Events Center at Weber State University was readied for as many as 900 evacuees from the neighborhood, Thueson said.
On Tuesday evening, the Northern Utah Chapter of the American Red Cross reported that 284 homes were still under evacuation orders but that number was not expected to increase.
Crews were working by air and on the ground to establish a containment area and protect structures, he said. Firefighters hoped cooler evening temperatures would help crews, but no one knew how winds in the area would behave.
Throughout the day, strong winds pushed the flames out over areas dried by summer heat, Thueson said.
"Fire crews faced very strong winds from the east blowing down (the) canyon this morning," he said. "Gusts of up to 40 mph this morning drove this fire quickly through the scrub oak, through the neighborhoods, and it quickly jumped boundary lines, jumped the highway and traveled west very quickly."
Ben Bauter and his wife, Denver, lived in a basement apartment of one of the homes that burned. The home on Carriage Lane belongs to his in-laws, he said.
Bauter was making breakfast when he saw a huge plume of smoke sweeping through. The home quickly lost power, he said, cutting off their ability to turn on the sprinklers, so the Bauters began grabbing hoses and dragging them to spigots, watching as flames burned toward homes on a road down the hill from them.
Meanwhile, Bauter said he could see smoldering flames on the hillside near a large painted letter "U," for Uintah.
"It looked like they had it under control for a minute, then the winds kind of shifted, and once the winds shifted it jumped across the gully and we decided we should grab everything we could and leave," he said.
No evacuation order had been issued, Bauter said, but it was already too late.
While his wife and her father fled with the couple's three dogs, a bunny rabbit, a laptop and a single hard drive — hopefully with their wedding photos on it — Bauter said he tried to pull a boat from the garage.
"All the scrub oak down by that lower garage caught fire and I had no choice but to jump in the truck and drive through the flames," Bauter said.
Bauter found a fire truck, hoping it could follow him back to the house, but was told the crew was already assigned to a house that had already been caught in flames. He hurried back to find the home still standing, but with vegetation burning around it.
"The rose bushes were on fire and the trees were smoldering," he said.
Then a small patch of flames appeared on the roof.
He rushed for the hoses, which by that time had melted. Any water he managed to get out of one fire-shortened hose was blown away by the wind. A friend joined him, and together they began dipping five-gallon buckets into a swimming pool.
"We were trying to throw buckets of water onto the roof of the house, but it was too windy, we couldn't get the buckets up there," Bauter said.
Just before he left the house, about 30 minutes after he first saw the flames, the roof of the garage collapsed.
"It's a total loss, I'm sure," he said.
Bauter had seen his neighbors safely leave the area, and as he followed, he left his last hose running full blast in hopes of soaking the area between the two homes, perhaps keeping the fire from spreading.
Now, Bauter and his wife are staying with friends while her parents have sought shelter with family. Not even the clothes Bauter wore when he left could be salvaged, he said, but he had been given some of his brother's clothing, and emphasized that he and his family were being cared for.
As he waits to learn what became of the home he has lived in for seven years, a gathering point for his friends and family, and the neighborhood that he loves, Bauter said he hopes that support from the community will continue.
"We're not the only ones that this happened to," he said. "We have a lot of support from family and friends, but some of these other people are going to need a lot of help."
As firefighters worked through the day, the Weber Fire District reported multiple structures were burning along Bybee Drive. Layton, which is one of several neighboring crews assisting in the area, reported on Twitter that flames had jumped I-84 and consumed more homes, threatening other structures as well as cars on the freeway.
The fire moved so quickly that crews were forced to evacuate from some areas where they had been working, Thueson said. No firefighters were injured.
Smoke from the fire quickly began blowing across U.S. 89, obscuring drivers' vision. The highway was closed in both directions for several hours from Harrison Boulevard to 3000 North in Layton. As the flames spread, I-84 was also closed in both directions in the area.
A list of evacuations was announced in the Uintah Highlands neighborhood, including Bybee Drive, Borg Circle, Karen Drive, Bonneville Terrace Drive, Woodland Drive and anyone who lives north of South Weber Drive.
Shortly before 2 p.m., South Weber residents were told they could return home. Those who were allowed back into their homes were told to be prepared for future evacuations.
Two elementary schools were also evacuated Tuesday.
Lane Findlay, Weber School District spokesman, said an estimated 700 students were bused out from Uintah Elementary School, 6115 S. 2250 East, to the Dee Events Center, where they were reunited with their parents. The school was not affected by the fire, Findlay said, but was cleared as a precaution.
Because the school had conducted a full evacuation and reunification drill just before classes released for the summer, Findlay said the effort was carried out smoothly and without complications.
All other schools remained open, according to the post, but transportation was still being arranged for Wednesday for students who live in the evacuated areas and attend H. Guy Child Elementary School, South Ogden Junior High and Bonneville High School.
The Davis School District also reported that students from South Weber Elementary, 1285 E. Lester St., were evacuated during the fire and taken to Clearfield High School, where parents came to pick them up.
Both Uintah Elementary and South Weber Elementary are scheduled to hold classes on Wednesday.
Hill Air Force Base also announced Tuesday evening that all gates at the facility were scheduled to resume normal hours of operation on Wednesday.
Weber County Commissioner Jim Harvey praised those who thought of others even as they were fleeing their homes, remembering to leave swimming pools uncovered to provide water for helicopters making drops on burning areas.
"People are experiencing some really tough things, but it's also wonderful to know that everyone is evacuated, no one is hurt, they all have what's most important, their families, and they're relieved because of that," Harvey said. "It speaks to my neighbors there in Uintah. They're great people."
Commissioner Kerry Gibson urged anyone who had been evacuated to come to the Dee Events Center to check in, report their situation and be connected with resources.
He praised donors offering help, but urged them to also come to the Dee Events Center rather than trying to get to command posts at the scene.
Gibson echoed his gratitude that no one had been hurt.
"This is not the first natural disaster that we've been through in our community, but it's one that definitely will make us look back at the things that are really important to us," he said.
The Red Cross Northern Utah Chapter reported it had been inundated with donations and more than 100 people checked in at the Dee Events Center to volunteer. They also asked that, while they appreciated the generosity of local businesses and residents, further help would be best offered through donating at redcross.org/local/utah.
"The outpouring of support that we have received from the community is humbling," said Madeline McDonald, the chapter's executive director. "We live in an amazing state, where people step up to help when disaster strikes. I am so proud of our community."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday afternoon that emergency funds were approved to help with the cost of fighting the fire. The FEMA grant money will pay up to 75 percent of eligible firefighting costs, but does not cover damage to any homes, businesses or infrastructure, according to a press release.