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Some residents get to go home as crews make progress on Uintah Fire

UINTAH, Weber County — Roughly 100 families must wait another day to return home to Weber Canyon after a 600-acre fire that started Tuesday charred a half-dozen structures and continued to threaten others Wednesday evening.

Crews from around the state were fighting the blaze that is 70 percent contained, compared to 5 percent a night earlier, fire managers said at a Wednesday news conference.

Teams working around the clock have made "extremely good progress" with engines, air tankers, two helicopters on loan from the state and good weather, Weber Fire District Capt. Rick Cooper told reporters at Weber State University's Dee Events Center, which was being used as a temporary evacuation center.

About a third of the evacuations ordered Tuesday remained in place Wednesday evening, though officers were helping people retrieve medicine and other necessities.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to re-evaluate and get people back into their homes tomorrow," Cooper said.

Earlier Wednesday, some mandatory evacuations were lifted for neighborhoods near the Uintah Fire 30 miles north of Salt Lake City.

Spring Canyon Road, Melanie Lane and Osmond Drive were reopened to residents, as well as 6025 South, 2900 East and 2925 East, thanks in part to cooperative weather. Canyon winds stayed relatively calm, allowing firefighters to gain ground against the blaze.

The fire that started Tuesday morning in Weber Canyon had burned 619 acres.

At least three of the six structures burned were primary residences, said Kim Osborn, fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

At its peak, more than 900 residents were evacuated from the Uintah Highlands neighborhood. On Tuesday evening, the Northern Utah Chapter of the American Red Cross reported that 284 homes were still under evacuation orders.

Weber State reopened the Dee center on Wednesday for people who have been evacuated, and the Red Cross was helping. Fire officials held a meeting for those residents to update them on what was happening. Between 50 and 70 people attended, including Kari Lane, who lives in the Spring Canyon area.

The center will be open again Thursday at 9:30 a.m. for affected residents.

"It happened so fast. When we left (Tuesday) morning to take our kids to school at 7:30, you could see the flames coming off the side of the hill," Lane said. "And by 10, they were saying, 'If you want to get anything out of your house, you need to do it now.'"

Jacki Joseph said the flames came right to the edge of her backyard, burning a fence post and sending smoke into her home. But her house was saved.

Anxious moments were recorded on 911 calls released Wednesday.

"The whole yard is on fire, and the smoke," one caller tells the dispatcher. "The wind is pushing it into my neighbor's house."

Another caller told dispatchers: "I had a brownout in my house and I thought, 'Oh crap there goes my electricity,' and I looked and my wires are still up," the caller stated. "I looked up the hill and thought, 'Oh, my. … The hill's on fire!'"

Lane and Joseph were staying in hotels in Layton and Ogden while they waited for the evacuation order to be lifted. Both had high praise for how quickly emergency crews worked to save homes and get evacuees to safety.

Fire officials are encouraging anyone evacuated who has an immediate need to get into their home, such as to retrieve medication or pets left behind, should contact them at the Dee Events Center.

Officials were also pleased to note that there had been no reports of injuries or missing people.

Osborn said several residents stayed with their homes despite the mandatory evacuation order. She did not have an exact count of who stayed behind, but she cautioned them to stay indoors Wednesday as fire crews were to make several air attacks and bucket drops on the fire.

The fire, combined with others burning in Utah and the West, continued to create a smoky haze across the entire Wasatch Front on Wednesday. Weber County reminded all residents in a tweet to "remain inside whenever possible to avoid breathing in smoky air."

Officials also asked residents to stay out of the area.

There were still hot spots burning in the area, Osborn said. But because Weber Canyon did not experience extreme wind, crews were able to get a much earlier start Wednesday.

Five helicopters, including two Black Hawks, were expected to be used on the fire, with a single-engine tanker standing by. On the ground, at least 15 engine crews continued to help battle the fire.

Hand crews were back in the Uintah Highlands neighborhood and along U.S. 84.

There was no estimate of when the fire would be brought fully under control.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Lightning and volcanic lava flow have been ruled out, which under wildfire definitions means the fire was "human-caused," Osborn said. But that does not necessarily mean the fire was sparked directly by someone's actions.

Contributing: Peter Samore, Paul Nelson