National/World

Utah fires destroy structures, force evacuations

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Several wildfires burning across Utah have forced evacuations, destroyed dozens of structures and prompted the closure of a part of Zion National Park.

Firefighters worked feverishly Wednesday to gain control of the fires, with one blaze in the central part of the state burning with little containment after destroying at least 56 structures, authorities said.

Officials couldn't immediately say how many of the burned structures were homes but they expected the number to rise considerably as they continue their assessment of the fire-ravaged area between Fountain Green and Fairview and north across the Utah County line.

The Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County had grown to about 46,000 acres, or 72 square miles, by Wednesday evening. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries, authorities said.

The blaze is the largest of several burning in Utah. Officials re-opened U.S. 89 Wednesday and an evacuation order for the roughly 1,200 residents of Fairview was lifted, said Mayor Jonathan Benson.

However, authorities said they're still concerned about winds picking up and hampering the containment effort, which sat at about 15 percent Wednesday night.

Sanpete County sheriff's officials said they have a tentative identification on a body found Tuesday morning in an evacuation zone but were waiting for confirmation from a medical examiner.

Sheriff Brian Nielson said "great progress" has been made to build fire lines on the southeast edge of the blaze.

Benson said area ranchers and farmers chipped in Tuesday with a local construction company's bulldozers to cut fire lines around Fairview.

"It made a huge difference," said Sanpete County Commissioner Spencer Cox.

Elsewhere in the state, the New Harmony Fire near St. George started Wednesday afternoon and had grown to 1,000 acres by nightfall. Fire officials said one structure has been destroyed and an undetermined number of residents near New Harmony and Bumblebee have evacuated their homes. The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at Delta High School in Delta.

The fire was burning about three miles north of Zion National Park, prompting park officials to close an area known as the Kolob section. Officials said Route 15 between the Kolob exit and Cedar City, and the Kolob Scenic Drive and Visitor Center have been closed.

Officials said there was no containment on the Seeley Fire, which has forced evacuations in Clear Creek, Hiawatha, Wattis and Scofield.

That blaze has burned more than 10,000 acres, Manti-La Sal National Forest spokeswoman Rosann Fillmore said Wednesday.

In addition to summer and year-round residents in those communities, about 100 girls at a camp and a group of Boy Scouts have been evacuated.

"It's moving. We've got high winds again today," Fillmore said, adding the flames were quickly consuming dead trees killed by beetle infestations.

The Church Camp fire, burning about 20 miles south of Duchesne, has charred about 5,200 acres and was 5 percent contained as of late Wednesday night. Officials have evacuated about 30 people in nearby Argyle Canyon. The blaze has destroyed about 12 structures.

The 12,000-acre Clay Springs Fire near Nephi forced the evacuation of the small communities of Oak City and Fool Creek, fire officials said late Wednesday night. The number of evacuees wasn't immediately clear, but the officials said the blaze was threatening about 100 structures.

Fire spokesman Jason Curry said the multiple blazes have put the state "way ahead of schedule" this fire season.

"Right now we're operating near full capacity," Curry said, adding that fire officials have called in reinforcements from across the West. "We haven't had the need for that level of fire management, expertise and capacity for several years."

Utah County sheriff's Sgt. Harold Curtis said cooler temperatures early Wednesday morning gave crews just enough time to finish cutting fire lines in the Birdseye area just north of Sanpete County. That effort, along with sustained work overnight, helped save several ranches.

Though the winds kicked up again Wednesday afternoon, authorities in Utah County finally opened the remaining stretch of U.S. 89 from the county line to Spanish Fork.

Just inside the Sanpete line, firefighting helicopters could still be seen dipping 2,600-gallon buckets into irrigation ponds, then dumping the water on sections of the Wood Hollow Fire that still raged.

Crews used the long gravel driveway that led to a ranch once owned by country music singer Willie Nelson to reach the fire that was churning through cedar, juniper and sagebrush.

The ranch is no longer owned by Nelson, but a sign bearing the initials WN was visible through the choking smoke along the charred hillside.

"The fire came as close as it can without burning any of it," Curtis said.

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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