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Crews save Ensign Peak homes from fast-moving fire

3 firefighters, 2 residents suffer minor injuries fighting wildfire behind state Capitol

SALT LAKE CITY — Three firefighters were injured Tuesday and some residents in the Ensign Peak neighborhood were evacuated as a fast-moving grass fire scorched 100 acres of a hillside behind the Utah State Capitol.

The fire was halted by firefighters at the ridges where homes overlook the city. About 40 homes were evacuated as a precaution before crews were able to knock the fire down.

Firefighters battle a brush fire in the foothills above the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Firefighters battle a brush fire in the foothills above the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Salt Lake fire spokeswoman Audra Sorenson said firefighters went door to door warning residents of the danger and asked them to evacuate.

Two firefighters were treated at University Hospital for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation and another suffered a leg injury, fire officials said. All three were later released. Two residents were also taken to a hospital for smoke inhalation.

Only one house suffered some fire damage to its exterior.

The fire spread quickly, prompting crews to request more and more assistance within the first 15 minutes.

"The wind is really unpredictable in that area … and it's been touch and go," Sorenson said.

"I don't want to say we've been expecting it, but we have definitely been preparing for something like this," she said. "We've been hopeful that we wouldn't have something going as rapidly on a hot day as this."

Fire crews were able to contain 95 percent of the fire within just three hours.

Officials temporarily closed East Capitol Boulevard and Victory Road as they fought the wildfire.

Justin Peterson, left, and Dustin Holt hose off after fighting a brush fire with garden hoses in the Columbus Court neighborhood in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. The fire spread up the dry hillside, threatening surrounding houses.
Justin Peterson, left, and Dustin Holt hose off after fighting a brush fire with garden hoses in the Columbus Court neighborhood in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. The fire spread up the dry hillside, threatening surrounding houses.
James Wooldridge, Deseret News

Investigators do not yet know how the fire began near 690 N. Columbus Street. Fireworks are banned in the area.

Some neighbors worked with firefighters side by side in trying to extinguish the flames.

"Within literally five minutes, that whole hillside exploded into flame," one neighbor said. "Unbelievable!"

Justin Peterson uses a garden hose to battle a brush fire in the Columbus Court neighborhood in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. Peterson and his friends were in the pool when they saw the smoke, grabbed garden hoses and started wetting the groun
Justin Peterson uses a garden hose to battle a brush fire in the Columbus Court neighborhood in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. Peterson and his friends were in the pool when they saw the smoke, grabbed garden hoses and started wetting the ground surrounding their houses.
James Wooldridge, Deseret News

"I think the scariest thing was when we heard screams and we saw the smoke getting darker," said Maurice Melligan, who also lives in the area. "And that's when the reality of it came in, 'Hey, we're in danger right now.'"

Melligan said he saw his neighbors pack up their cars and vacate the area.

"We could see ash falling in front of us," he said.

"I just ran with the hose and tried to stay in front of it," said neighbor Justin Peterson. "When the firefighters showed up, the flames were so tall, the firefighters were yelling, 'Get out! Get out!' But that house and that house would be gone if we had gotten out, so …"

Firefighters battle a brush fire in the foothills above the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Firefighters battle a brush fire in the foothills above the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

For the first time, Salt Lake firefighters used their new "pumpkin" water tanks. A helicopter made multiple trips to the area, dipping a large orange bucket and returning to douse more flames.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski praised firefighters' efforts and said a recent $500,000 allocation for equipment to fight wildfires such as Tuesday's was justified.

Biskupski and Salt Lake Fire Chief Karl Lieb plan to visit the scene of the fire early Wednesday to assess damage.

About 50-60 firefighters responded to the fire. Crews received support from the Utah Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service and American Red Cross.

Sorenson said the Ensign Peak neighborhood can be a dangerous area for fires.

"In the spring we always do mitigation efforts in this area because it's high risk. It's right at the urban interface. So we always go in there and advise them to clear out some of those noxious weeds," she said.

"We work really hard to talk to them about fire prevention. So it's not something we're surprised by. This is a high risk area."