Evaluating previous incidents for clues to calm fire control concerns
As people in the Carbon County area have watched television in the last two weeks, they have seen the conflagration engulfing southern California.
People have become used to seeing fires controlled quickly. But it wasn't that long ago that a fire in one building on a block meant that the whole street would probably go up in flames as well.
The early 20th century was a time of many wooden buildings and practically no fire code. It was that way in most of America, particularly in rural parts of the country. Price was no exception.
Early on the morning of Oct. 21, 1911, J.W. Wellington, who worked for one of the Sun Advocates predecessor papers, the Carbon County News, was asleep in his office. On the early Saturday morning, many in town were sleeping off the usual Friday night goings-on in town.
The office was in a building right in the heart of what was then Main Street on which was located the Price Cooperative Mechantile Company, a jewelry store, a saloon, a cafe and the post office.
At about 4 a.m., Wellington woke up to heavy smoke and the sound of flames rising up the wall of the building.
After letting a number of people know about the blaze he hooked up a hose and began to fight the fire. But by the time other fire department volunteers began to arrive, four buildings on the block were involved.
The jewelry shop owner in the area, A.G. Grames, came out when he heard the commotion and watched as his store, which shared space with the Carbon County News, burned to the ground.
The fourth building was the Thomas Fitzgerald Saloon. As fire fighters started to evaluate the situation, they realized it and everything above it on the block would be lost, so they started to protect the other buildings that were not involved. They fought the blaze at the barbershop which was next to the post office, which was already on fire.
All in all, five buildings were lost in the blaze. It was one of the worst fires that every struck the county.
The fire would have put the Carbon County News out of business, but The Advocate (another predecessor of the Sun Advocate) allowed them to print their papers for the next few weeks on their press. However the editor and publisher of The Advocate at the time showed little sympathy for the plight of their competitor by saying that the loss for the other paper was $1,750 and that their insurance had expired the previous September. As for fault, The Advocate editor placed the blame for such irresponsibility "on whom this loss falls as the plant having changed ownership so often and its affairs being in such a muddled condition..."
Eventually the block was rebuilt, even though many of the businesses were not reopened. The fire was also a starting point for the merger of the two newspapers because the Carbon County News never really recovered from the disaster.
Could a fire like this take place today? Certainly buildings built close to one another can create such a problem, but with today's fire codes and modern equipment, and in particular communication systems, it is much more unlikely. Besides, all the buildings that burned in 1911 were made of wood.
Probably a bigger threat to communities in Carbon County is the same thing that happened in California recently: wild fire raging into populated areas.
While the growth cycles of plants and trees are much longer along the coast and the foliage in some areas is thicker, dry conditions that existed before the fire this fall exist in Utah too. For those involved in the fire and who saw it in person, the possibility exists.
Two weeks ago, Steve Wilkinson, a native of southern California who now lives in Wellington, went back to help his grandmother whose house was in the direct path of one of the fires near San Bernadino.
"When we drove through Victorville toward the coast we could see the flames 60 miles away at 2 a.m. in the morning," he said. "What I couldn't believe is how empty the freeways were when I got to San Bernadino. I lived there for years and I never saw them like that, even in the middle of the night."
Wilkinson had to find a back way to his grandma's house because the police had the main entrance toward her home closed off.
"A television truck followed me in because he must have thought I knew where I was going," he said.
Once he arrived he realized how close the fire was. But more important than where the actual wall of fire was, was the embers landing on houses all around the neighborhood. Those embers set off many fires, even though the main blaze never reached the area. He immediately took his place up on the roof of her house to water it down while other relatives loaded belongings.
"As I stood there from my vantage point I could see houses burning all around me," he stated. "At one point I was on the cell phone with my wife in Utah and an ember landed on my arm and burned me. I think she thought I was on fire the way I was yelling about it."
Just before the family pulled out of the driveway they spotted a fire burning between two fences on Wilkinson's grandma's property. The fire was licking the eves of her house, so they got out and put out the blaze with a garden hose.
"That saved the house," he said. "When we got back a few days later that was the only thing that had burned. Had we not seen it burning there, the fire would have gone up in the roof and burned the house down."
That return happened when the fire was heading up the mountain toward Big Bear and their area was no longer in the direct path of the flames. Wilkinson saw devastation surrounding some areas that were unaffected by the devastation. He said it was surreal.
"In one neighborhood there was one house left standing with bushes next to it all burned yet the house was untouched," he noted.
During that week whole leaves, half burned, descended on his grandma's neighborhood, blown there by winds off the mountains. Those leaves came from trees being burned near Crestline, high in the mountains, many miles away.
Wilkinson worries that people here don't realize how easily this could happen in Utah, even here in Carbon County.
"People think the foliage is not great enough here, but there are many places where it is just as thick," he said.
Many of the homes and businesses destroyed in California were not the result of the direct march of the blaze by the ember problem his grandma's neighborhood suffered.
"There were so many fires going on at once the fire departments were over-stretched," he said. "I watched as one woman kept trying to flag down fire trucks that were flying by to put the fire on her house out but none ever stopped."
Local fire officials have often warned people to be sure dry brush and grass are cleared from around homes. But in southern California, even green bushes broke into flames. The Santa Ana winds and the two percent humidity made it perfect for the conflaguration that took place.
A fact in the west is that as communities grow, they become more and more prone to wildfire devastation, even in the high cold deserts that exist in eastern Utah.
It's a fact that many here may need to learn to live with.