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Thousands forced to flee in 2 close calls with fast-moving wildfires in Utah County Sunday

No injuries, no homes reported lost, but officials warn fire danger remains high

Traffic moves slowly as The Knolls Fire, on the west side of Utah Lake, is forcing the evacuation of 3,100 homes in southern sections of Saratoga Springs. on Sunday, June 28, 2020.
Traffic moves slowly as The Knolls Fire, on the west side of Utah Lake, is forcing the evacuation of 3,100 homes in southern sections of Saratoga Springs. on Sunday, June 28, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

LEHI — A wildfire west of Utah Lake forced the evacuation of 13,000 people from 3,100 homes in southern sections of Saratoga Springs Sunday afternoon as strong winds drove flames close to homes and made a battle from the air impossible for firefighters.

It was the second fast-moving fire that forced residents to flee along the Wasatch Front in less than 24 hours.

Crews from across Utah and Salt Lake counties earlier Sunday battled the fireworks-caused Traverse Mountain Fire that started late Saturday night. After the risk to nearby homes in Lehi and Draper decreased, most were called to the Knolls Fire that ignited Sunday afternoon south of Saratoga Springs.

After several hours evacuated, some Saratoga Springs residents were allowed to return to their homes just before 11 p.m. The evacuation order ended for those who live north of Village Parkway, but they were told to stay prepared to leave again should the need arise. Residents south of Village Parkway, west of Redwood Road, and south of Harbor Parkway remained evacuated.

By early evening, the fire was moving away from homes but still posed a threat to the area as it burned more than 2,000 acres and was 0% contained, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which authorized funds for Utah in fighting the blaze.

“The fire itself is moving primarily away from structures. We’re still doing some mop-up behind some of the homes that were affected,” said Saratoga Springs Fire Chief Jess Campbell. The fire was moving up Lake Mountain to an area that hasn’t burned in many years and has a lot of fire fuel.

Jason Curry, spokesman with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands, said in all his years fighting fires, he’s never seen winds as heavy blowing in an urban area during a fire.

Though the cause was initially reported as lightning, sheriff’s officials said Sunday evening it was still under investigation. Some homes had been “impacted” by the fire and damaged but the extent of damage was not known.

A wildfire burns near Saratoga Springs on Sunday. The Knolls Fire, on the west side of Utah Lake, is forcing the evacuation of 3,100 homes in southern sections of Saratoga Springs.
A wildfire burns near Saratoga Springs on Sunday. The Knolls Fire, on the west side of Utah Lake, is forcing the evacuation of 3,100 homes in southern sections of Saratoga Springs.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The fire started about 1 p.m., and by 5 p.m. had “wrapped around” the west side of Redwood Road. Residents in the southern sections of Saratoga Springs were soon after told to evacuate with no estimate for when they might return to their homes. A shelter was set up at Westlake High School 990 N. Thunder Blvd., where evacuees needed to undergo health screenings upon arrival. Several dozens cars were parked in the lot Sunday evening.

Southbound state Route 68 in the area was also closed.

The Saratoga Springs mayor and City Council issued an emergency declaration late Sunday evening confirming the evacuation orders.

Resident Steve Madsen said he walked out of his garage and “I couldn’t even see Utah Lake because of the smoke.”

He got his wife and they prepared to leave their home as they saw the fire move closer. When police told soon them to evacuate, they learned the blaze was 1 12 blocks away from their home.

“I know it was really smoky. I hope it’s still standing,” he said of his home.

Kenzie Egan recalled the moments before evacuating as “alarming.”

“My daughter has really severe asthma, and so that made things a little bit scarier. I could tell that her asthma was acting up, and when we were leaving we had a ton of ash in the air, and it was in the inside of our car as we were packing up to go,” Egan said.

They left within 15 minutes after packing the essentials. A police officer directed traffic out of their neighborhood, and he was completely covered in soot, Egan said.

“And so that freaked us out. That made it real, and it made us so grateful for the first responders that are just risking their lives for us,” she said.

Suzi Heiner, who evacuated with her family from the Jacob’s Ranch neighborhood, said she saw on Facebook that they needed to evacuate and left within 20 minutes. Though they could see tall flames when they left, they remained optimistic, Heiner said.

“We did this once . . . this is the second time we’ve been evacuated from that area before, so we’ve got a little practice,” she said. “We’ll just wait it out here. Sounds like there are snacks inside — my kids are happy.”

Police direct traffic as a wildfire in Saratoga Springs spreads on Sunday. 
Police direct traffic as a wildfire in Saratoga Springs spreads on Sunday.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox shared photos of charred landscaping the fire left in its wake.

“We had to leave this neighborhood because of thick smoke and intense flames —convinced that many homes would be lost. But these heroes from every jurisdiction jumped in and held things off until the wind shifted. Somehow they saved every single one,” Cox tweeted.

Traverse Mountain Fire

About 42 houses in Lehi along Autumn Hills Boulevard and Spring View Lane were evacuated early Sunday morning as the fast-moving Traverse Fire moved down toward homes in the Point of the Mountain neighborhoods. Residents of 150 homes in Draper near the Maple Hollow Trailhead were also evacuated. They were all allowed to return to their homes by 7 p.m.

The fire was 26% contained at 450 acres as of latest report.

“We did not lose a home. We had some minor damage, minor property damage — it was pretty insignificant, and that’s because we had firemen there protecting those items,” said Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson, thanking crews for their work.

Crews were first called to the Traverse Fire about 11:30 p.m. Saturday. Eventually, firefighters from agencies around Utah Valley and Salt Lake County responded to assist.

“We sent all of our crews up there, and we had a wind-driven fire which really exploded because of the dry grasses up there. Our initial priority were the houses on Autumn Hills (Boulevard),” said Lehi Fire Chief Jeremy Craft.

Due to the large size of the fire, a wildland firefighting team took over command of battling the blaze.

“The big problem for us was that it was a wind-driven fire. As we were fighting this fire, there was a significant wind event happening up there especially down canyon, so really pushing that fire hard through the dry grasses up there,” Craft said.

About 5 a.m., a small rainstorm went through the area and increased humidity, Craft said, helping firefighters with suppression efforts.

The person who set off the fireworks that ignited the fire was cooperating with law enforcement, fire officials said on the Utah Fire Info twitter account. The person’s identity has not been released.

Craft said the fire started at an “opportune” time of high fire risk. Fireworks are also prohibited in the area.

“Super dry fuels, all of the sudden we get kind of a dry wind storm that comes in, and this thing was explosive,” the fire chief said.

“It’s unfortunate that this incident happened. It caused a lot of people a long, sleepless night. And as you look up on that mountain, a considerable amount of damage that this is not the end of it. If we can’t get it revegetated, and we get some heavy rains any time between now and when it is revegetated, we’re going to have to worry about mud slide and those houses are going to be in danger again,” Craft said.

Diana and Joe Caudell talk about evacuating after a wildfire on Traverse Mountain threatened their home in Lehi on Sunday, June 28, 2020.
Diana and Joe Caudell talk about evacuating after a wildfire on Traverse Mountain threatened their home in Lehi on Sunday, June 28, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Fleeing in middle of the night

When Joe Caudell and his wife, Diana, noticed the fire was inching closer to their neighborhood, Canyon Hills in Lehi, they and most of their neighbors decided to evacuate. Those just a few streets away were required to evacuate.

“And the flames were huge, and I mean, at that point I think we were all quite a bit concerned and made the decision to just evacuate and get out of the neighborhood,” Caudell said.

They gathered up their emergency kit, important documents, hard drives with family photos and other essentials, woke up their 4-year-old daughter, and left to sleep at a friend’s house.

Though their home wasn’t in immediate danger, the fire didn’t appear to be slowing down through the night.

“I actually was somewhat nervous. It was relatively small, and then I saw how quickly it spread and it got quite big,” Caudell said. He worried about those homes at the bottom of the foothill catching on fire, and the fire potentially spreading through the neighborhood.

While the experience was “eye-opening,” Caudell said, it wasn’t the first time he and his neighbors have noticed people visit to shoot guns or set off fireworks nearby, as there is an access lane leading to a water treatment facility in the canyon.

“I think, at this point, we’re obviously concerned that people could do something in the future and maybe we’re not as lucky as we were this time. . . . We definitely are hoping that people will kind of realize, this is kind of a wake-up call — don’t come up to the hills up here where it’s really dry,” Caudell said.

He thanked the firefighters who worked to protect the neighborhood.

“I just think they did an amazing job, and I know that obviously we as a family, and speaking to neighbors, we’re extremely grateful for all their support and help.”

When resident John Clark saw the fire as it first started, he and his family were driving home on state Route 92. They then “rushed up the hill to try to warn those who were sleeping.”

At first, it looked like an “out of control campfire,” he said, but he had a feeling it would move down the mountain and endanger homes.

“The flames were pretty intense, and the heat was definitely you could feel it. It was very strong,” Clark said. He and his wife helped residents wake up and gather belongings, he said. The couple did not need to evacuate themselves.

Clark expressed gratitude to the firefighters who worked to save homes.

“We have awesome firefighters that jumped right in and were able to lay down some water and some backfire and did a great job,” Clark said.

Crews protected structures throughout the morning. Just a vinyl fence had been burned, according to Craft. Homes in the area, however, were expected to have some smoke damage.

The Red Cross set up evacuation centers at Skyridge High School and Draper Park Middle School. At one point, 40 residents were there, Draper officials said. The centers were then closed within a few hours due to a lack of people seeking assistance.

Fire risk remains high

State fire officials warned that fireworks are prohibited throughout the state at all times except for July 2-5, July 22-25 and Dec. 31 through Jan. 1. Fireworks are always prohibited on federal lands.

“I know that fireworks are fun, and people love them. You know what this happens every year,” Craft said. “I would just ask residents to really think about that, and help us out and do the right thing with your fireworks. Have your fun, but be safe about it and don’t cause harm to others.”

In an afternoon news conference, Cox and other officials warned Utahns to be vigilant due to high fire risk ahead of the 4th of July.

“We are dealing with a lot of issues right now. This whole year, as we’ve dealt with — and are dealing with — the COVID situation, to the earthquake. We’re dealing now with fires and fire season, and this being one of several fires burning throughout this state at this time,” Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said after touring the Traverse Fire, which burned about 500 acres and led to evacuation orders for nearly 200 families.

Gov. Gary Herbert urged Utahns to “anticipate a very difficult summer season” of high fire risk as crews also continued to battle two other fires with ongoing evacuations.

In southern Utah, the Canal Fire in Millard County near Oak City forced evacuations of Fool Creek and Leamington, Cox said. Crews earlier Sunday had reached 100% containment on the blaze that started Friday, but strong winds caused the fire to escape containment. As of Sunday evening, it was threatening $1 million in farm equipment and had forced 300 people to evacuate. The fire has burned more than 2,000 acres of state and private land and is now 0% contained, according to FEMA.

Contributing: Felicia Martinez, Andrew Adams, Brittany Tait, Alex Cabrero