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With fire largely contained, families OK'd to return to Weber Canyon neighborhood

FILE - A burned home can be seen in the wake of a wildfire at the mouth of Weber Canyon on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

OGDEN — Authorities allowed more than 100 evacuated families to return to their homes under a scorched hillside Thursday evening as crews made gains against a fire that charred roughly 1 square mile and tore through five homes earlier in the week.

The lift on the last remaining evacuations is tentative, but it still drew cheers and applause from dozens of residents at a community meeting Thursday. They were told to pack a bag and be ready to leave in a half-hour's notice as embers smoldered near the upscale Weber Canyon neighborhood where the air was still thick with smoke.

Residents said they were relieved, recalling the chaos that began at 7:23 Tuesday morning when strong winds pushed flames toward homes and neighbors sprinted to warn each other and help douse the fire.

"I thought our house was gone," Michelle Anderson said Thursday, her eyes liquid. But a fire engine immediately pulled up and ran a hose down her yard, she said. "They turned it on and started spraying just in time."

Michelle Anderson describes how a brush fire rushed up into her Weber Canyon neighborhood before overtaking a half-dozen structures and forcing evacuations of roughly 300 households.

She and her husband, Trevor, with their newborn twins and older children ages 1, 3, 9 and 8, were unpacking their SUV in the driveway 20 yards from the fireline Thursday. Michelle and the kids spent two days at her parents' home in East Layton and Trevor remained home to help firefighters.

The parents recalled flames racing toward their bedroom window as they scrambled to grab a hard drive with family photos and strap the babies into car seats. Her husband and other men in the neighborhood wore ski goggles and tied T-shirts over their faces as they put out hot spots with shovels, Michelle Anderson said.

"It's definitely a relief to be able to say we can go home," Trevor Anderson said.

The blaze was 85 percent contained as of Thursday at 7 p.m., when the evacuations were lifted, but it's uncertain when it will be out altogether, said Weber Fire District Capt. Rick Cooper.

"This thing could be fully contained Monday — or 10 days from now," he said after a forum at the Dee Events Center at Weber State University. The arena was a temporary evacuation center where families could pick up water bottles, pet service poodles and eat enchiladas served by volunteers.

Reporters were barred from attending the forum, but cheers and applause could be heard from the area where it took place before Cooper spoke with reporters.

On Thursday, only residents were allowed into the neighborhood nestled into a ridge 30 miles north of Salt Lake City. Fire managers asked them to stay on guard for potential fire hazards in and around their homes.

Roughly 300 households were evacuated Tuesday, but fire officers gradually allowed them to return.

Teams from across the state worked round the clock Tuesday and Wednesday to douse the blaze they believed is caused by human activity. Only local crews would continue to monitor the fire Friday, Cooper said.

One resident showed appreciation for the firefighters by delivering envelopes full of cash to Cooper's crews, he said. The firefighters aren't allowed to accept the tips but passed them on to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation in Boise, Idaho. Cooper would not say how much his department was given.

Authorities are still investigating and declined to release more details or a price tag on firefighting costs Thursday.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, low canyon winds allowed crews to make progress with engines and a pair of state helicopters. And no injuries or missing people have been reported.

At least three of the six structures burned in the square-mile fire were primary residences, authorities said.

The fire combined with others in Utah and the West to blanket the Wasatch Front with smoky haze. Weber County reminded all residents in a tweet to "remain inside whenever possible to avoid breathing in smoky air."

Danika Kunzler said she was getting ready for school and her parents for work when they saw smoke over the hillside and had five minutes to evacuate. The flames came up to their yard and ripped into their guest house, but didn't reach their home, said Danika's mom Shannon Kunzler.

Kunzler, who is getting married in three weeks, raced to pack her wedding dress and pictures. She said she believes the blaze tightened the already close-knit community.

"We are so lucky," said Kunzler. "Everyone's just in shock."