Parched forests erupt in flames, hundreds evacuate Scofield area
The Carbon County Commission declared a state of local emergency Wednesday and is asking for state and federal disaster aid to battle wildfires that are roaring through the drought-stricken woodlands on the county's west and north sides.
Between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the Seeley Fire near Emery County's Huntington Canyon exploded from 10 acres to more than 11,000 acres, spreading into Carbon County to jeopardize Hiawatha, Wattis, Clear Creek and Scofield. All those areas were evacuated Wednesday. The Scofield evacuation included all boat camps, state park campgrounds, Boy Scout and other youth activity areas.
The population of tourists and visitors was even higher than usual because this was to be the weekend for the Pleasant Valley Days celebration.
At a special session Wednesday morning to declare the emergency, commissioners explained that the threat at that time was mainly the health hazard of heavy smoke. However, commissioner Mike Milovich warned that there are hundreds of structures potentially in the path of the Seeley Fire. The number includes not only homes and cabins but also natural gas pipelines and compressor stations, and high-voltage electrical transmission lines. Natural gas production companies sent crews throughout the jeopardized area to shut down gas lines and pumps.
In Emery County, Sheriff's Capt. Kyle Ekker reported that evacuations have taken place around Huntington Canyon and Electric Lake. The fire was still a threat Wednesday to cabins at the end of Candland and around Miller's Flat.
Ashes touched off a small fire near the Huntington Power Plant Wednesday morning. The fire is still a threat to the plant, the nearby Deer Creek coal mine and to the high-voltage transmission lines leading from the plant.
Meanwhile, the Church Camp Fire in Argyle Canyon just north of the Carbon-Duchesne county line continued to burn through the night. The fire is being fought by more than 100 fire fighters and two helicopters, .four single seat air tankers, eight engines, two water tenders and two bulldozers.
An enormous jet air tanker also made one pass, dumping about 11,000 gallons of fire retardant on the fire.
It was a DC-10 VLAT, (very large air tanker) that can carry four times as much as other tankers in use in the United States.
The plane is out of California but can only be filled with materials at a few bases. The plane that was used Monday was refueled and resupplied in Boise, Idaho.
It was the first time this large of an aircraft has been used to fight a fire in Utah. It also has to have a special lead plane that is trained to do the flight with the DC-10 to lead it into areas on the fire.
"I saw it come in low over the trees," said the driver of a fuel transport truck from the Uintah Basin that was on site to resupply fire crews equipment. "It came in and it was a sight to see." Sixty-five fire fighters were battling that 1,500-acre blaze as of Wednesday afternoon.
A federal Type II fire team of 250 to 500 members was expected to arrive from Boise by Wednesday afternoon to combat the Seeley Fire. This team is supported by its own aircraft, including heavy lift helicopters.
As a result of the emergency declaration, every piece of fire-fighting equipment and all crews in the county are either deployed or on standby for action. Price City, for example, sent one truck and crew to Hiawatha and two more to Clear Creek. These crews were assigned to protect structures but not to fight the wildland fire itself. Helper has also deployed crews and trucks in support of the effort.
Commissioner Milovich explained that there is no telling which way the wind is going to carry the flames or how far the fire and smoke will travel. "It is a fluid, serious situation," he said. For that reason, contingency plans are in place to defend and/or evacuate Helper, Carbonville and the Westwood subdivision.
The Wellington Stake Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was set up as a Red Cross evacuation center for people who may have needed a place to stay. Recognizing that not all evacuees would be human, the county also offered temporary quarters for livestock and pets. Cattle and horses could go to the fairgrounds, dogs and cats could be housed at the animal control shelter.
While the main paved highways leading into the evacuated areas have been cordoned off, there have been reports of people trying to access the restricted areas via back country roads. Commissioner John Jones warned that this poses a particular hazard in an unpredictable situation such as this. First, people are endangering themselves by entering the fire zone. Second, if they have to be rescued or told to leave, they are drawing away resources that could be better spent fighting the fires.
The fire is burning through wildlife habitat as well as cattle grazing areas. Cattlemen were kept busy rounding up their livestock, driving cows down to safer levels.