SARATOGA SPRINGS — Intense heat from the raging Knolls Fire melted the siding off the back of Jacob Williams’ house on Sunrise Drive in the last neighborhood before the sprawling city gives way to grass and brush.
The flames consumed a Trex fence, charred the deck and burned down two large willow trees on the fence line.
“It’s a little shocking, but all in all we feel blessed to fare as well as we did,” Williams said as he surveyed his backyard and the blackened mountainside behind his home an hour after the city allowed thousands of evacuees to return to their homes Monday afternoon.
“Everybody’s OK. Our animals are all right. The stuff inside the house is fine,” said the married father of two young children. “We needed to redo the yard anyway, so I guess this is a fresh canvas.”
Other homes on Sunrise Drive and Casi Way looked a lot like Williams’ house.
“I don’t know how this fire didn’t take the whole neighborhood,” he said, praising firefighters for keeping the flames at bay.
The fast-moving blaze forced 13,000 residents from their homes Sunday. It had burned at least 12,000 acres and was 25% contained Monday, said Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kari Boyd-Peak. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
“We’re in good shape. There has been very little growth today,” she said.
About 200 firefighters were on the scene dousing hot spots and flar-ups. After high winds grounded helicopters Sunday, they were back in the air Monday.
Cooler weather and rain helped subdue the fire, but as summer heat returns, Jason Curry, spokesman with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, warned fire danger in the state will once again be high in as little as 48 hours. He urged caution for any activity that could cause a spark.
There were 37 new wildfires over the weekend in Utah, including more than 20 that were human-caused, according to Utah fire officials. To date this year, there have been 537 fires, at least 425 of which were started by people.
Firefighters across the state are braced for an above-normal wildfire season thanks to a hefty snowpack in the winter that helped fine fuels— including small vegetation like grass or sagebrush — to thrive in spring. Those fine fuels have now dried, leaving them primed to catch fire.
The fire destroyed one house outside the city limits and about 12 homes suffered some type of damage, said Saratoga Springs spokesman Dave Johnson. Nine other residences sustained property damage. About 18 fences and one shed were burned.
The fire started about 1 p.m. Sunday and by 5 p.m. had “wrapped around” the west side of Redwood Road, Curry said.
The Knolls Fire was at least the third wildfire in Saratoga Springs this month, one of which was started by someone target shooting, Boyd-Peak said.
“It is definitely a problem in this area with target shooters and recreationists not being careful,” she said.
Travis Van Ekelenburg, who moved in next door to Williams two months ago, reported the fire to authorities Sunday as he was leaving his house just after 1:30 p.m. He said as he drove south on Redwood Road, he saw someone camping and believes the fire started there.
When he returned a couple hours later, police had blocked off the streets and were evacuating residents. He managed to talk them into letting him retrieve his cat, Santa.
“When I came back here, it was like one of those movies where literally everything is abandoned,” he said.
Van Ekelenburg returned Monday to find his stucco house intact. A burned patch of grass a foot from the back side of the home served as reminder of how close the fire came.
“This was all good, lush vegetation through here,” he said, looking out at the blackened landscape as spots on the mountainside smoldered. “I’m lucky, so I can’t complain even though it was a very stressful situation trying to get back here.”
The city evacuated 3,100 homes on Sunday, leading to a mass exodus along Redwood Road. About 1,800 were allowed to return late Sunday, while the remainder were kept away until 12:30 p.m. Monday.
Williams expressed gratitude to police for conducting an orderly evacuation.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on socially right now, so it was really cool to see the cops come in and still maintain their ability to keep society safe,” he said. “They were absolutely incredible and this wouldn’t have gone as well without them.”
Crews spent the morning assessing homes and restoring power. Returning residents were told they should be prepared to evacuate again if conditions changed. Redwood Road remained closed southbound at Harbor Parkway.
James and Lindsay Wood checked out the charred backyard of their home on Casi Way, including a large shed that was still standing but was devoid of siding. Everything inside was wet, apparently from fire crews soaking it for protection.
“On the bright side, I was going to clear all this out this summer,” James Wood said.
A shelter for evacuated residents reopened Monday morning at Westlake High School, 990 N. Thunder Blvd., though many residents stayed with friends and other family members.
At the high school, Red Cross volunteers handed out water, milk, cereal, granola bars and hand sanitizer to displaced residents. They checked the temperature of each person who entered the building and gave them face masks.
Tammy Leausa and her two teenage sons were looking for a place to hang out after spending Sunday night at another son’s house in Provo.
“We just smelled a lot of smoke and heard a lot of sirens so we just went outside,” she said. “We had neighbors going door to door, knocking on the doors saying, ‘We have to evacuate.’”
Already prepared with backpacks filled with clothes, the Leausas were out of the house in about 10 minutes.
Leausa said her home wasn’t in danger but she could feel the heat from the flames.
“The sky was all orange and brown and it was time to go,” she said.
Kreston Snow pulled up to a police roadblock on Redwood Road at Harbor Parkway around noon hoping to get back into his house below a charred hillside. Saratoga Springs police politely turned him away.
“It wouldn’t bother me to sneak back in,” he said. “I’d rather be here than someplace else. ... I feel anxious, not bored but I want to be doing something.”
Snow and his wife, Carol Ann, evacuated late Sunday afternoon, she with a carload of food and clothes and he in his truck packed with family photos. He said the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see the flames from the raging fire.
“We were gone before it came around the corner to the housing development,” he said, adding he also grabbed his wife’s sewing machine because she’s a quilter.
The BLM Monday issued a fire prevention order closing lands in and around Lake Mountain to keep recreationists out of the area while crews continued to fight the fire. At least two bicyclists were spotted riding over the charred ground.
“We don’t want anyone to be put in danger. We don’t need that added risk while our firefighters and EMTs and first responders are busy responding to fire. The last thing we need to do is rescue someone who is too curious or intrigued by the fire trying to get a photo,” Johnson.
Contributing: Pat Reavy