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Lightning ignited wildfire rages above Willow Creek

Sun Advocate publisher

The Mathis fire rages near the top of the cliffs north of Kenilworth on Saturday afternoon. Residents watched the flames boil nearly to the top, but by evening the fire had moved down the mountain on the opposite side.

A lightning strike last Thursday ignited a wildfire above Willow Creek Canyon. Rated as one of the top priority wildfires burning in the West, the blaze had consumed more than 1,200 acres by Monday afternoon.

An accompanying fire that was started last Friday by a different lightning strike was also burning above Kenilworth. But by noon on Monday, the wildfire had consumed only 50 acres.

The Willow Creek incident has become known as the Mathis fire because the July 5 blaze apparently started on property owned by the Mathis family.

"We are in red flag conditions with this fire," said Richard Harvey, incident commander for the unified force battling the blaze at noon on Tuesday. "We have had high winds and low humidity. At present, the fire is being forced south because of winds from the northeast. Of course that can change."

The fire was reported on Thursday and grew quickly. By Friday, a large plume of smoke rose above Kenilworth, where some residents became nervous despite the fact the blaze was on the other side of the cliffs.

On Saturday, firefightling crews began to arrive from many different states to battle the blaze. Since July 7, the crews have been building firebreaks and battling the flames head on in some cases.

"This is a highly rated fire because, in our initial report ,we stated that there could be evacuations if it headed in the wrong direction," explained Harvey. "We have not had to do that and, hopefully, we will not."

A rumor circulating around Carbon County indicated that UtahAmerican Company's coal mines at the top of Airport Road had been closed. But Harvey said the rumor was not true.

"If the fire were to jump across to the east, it could threaten some mine equipment and ventilation shafts. Then we could have a problem," pointed out Harvey.

"We have plans to protect the electrical lines that go into those areas because they are what keep the ventilation systems in the mines working. But we don't foresee that kind of problem right now. We have plans for that contingency," continued the incident commander.

Last Saturday it looked like the fire was going to boil up over the cliffs into the canyon above Kenilworth.

Residents of the town stood on porches and streets watching the clouds of smoke rise. But the flames did not bridge the ridge or come down the canyon.

By Monday, more than 200 emergency personnel from locations as far away as Missouri were manning the fire lines. There were also firefighters from nearby states like Nevada, Idaho and Colorado assisting at the scene.

"Our incident management team consists of people from almost every western state," said Harvey.

During the weekend and on Monday, Carbon County residents could hear the beat of helicopter blades.

Three helicopters were dumping water on the flames on Sunday and started dropping retardent on the wildfire retardant on the wildfire on Monday.

Richard Harvey Incident commander

Harvey indicated that the fire team, which is headquartered at the Western Energy Training Center, has developed a plan to protect the eastern flank of the blaze in case the flames start to move toward the coal mines.

On Monday, the teams were building firebreaks and planning for a defensive effort in that area.

Other crews are battling the fire offensively. They are attacking the fire and then letting the aircraft dump retardant on it, then attacking again.

On Monday afternoon, there had been no structures damaged or lost to the wildfire, primarily because the incident occurred in a remote area.

"The best thing is that we have had no injuries or deaths associated with the fire," said Bob Troudahl, the assistant incident commander.

Harvey pointed out that the teams are working to contain the fire so the flames do not jump from canyon to canyon.

On Monday afternoon, the fire was burning into Cordingly Canyon. The area is known as Clay Banks Canyon to many local residents.

One concern fire crews have involves spectators venturing into dangerous areas.

During the weekend, a number of people drove up to the site in pickup trucks, on four-wheelers and on bikes to see the wildfire.

One of three helicopters that are being used to drop water and fire retardant on the Mathis fire flies over the WETC on Monday afternoon. The choppers are invaluable for fighting fires in rough terrain.

The area around the scene is restricted to protect the safety and provide firefighter access to the site. `

Emma Park Road is closed to Nine Mile Canyon. Whitmore Park Road to Emma Park is also closed. Travel on Ronco Road from Kenilworth to Cordingly Canyon is restricted north of the local town.

As of Monday morning, the Mathis wildfire had cost approximately $450,000 to fight.

The expenses associated with fighting the Mathis wildfire are increasing rapidly.

"One of the things people don't realize is that we have a person circling in a plane far above the fire directing operations," said Harvey. "They see something flare up or a problem, they let the ground crews know so it can be taken care of."

Monday at noon, Harvey indicated that he couldn't tell for certain when the fire would be contained because so much of the situation depends on the weather, particularly the wind.

The forecast for the area is for thunderstorms, which started the two local wildfires, to die off and for the high that has been dominating the West to move back in full force.

"The thing we need to remember is that any change in weather will change the direction of the wind," explained the incident commander. "I would prefer we have no wind at all. But we have to deal with what we have and we will continue to do that in the best way we know how."

The Kenilworth fire was burning slowly until Sunday,when it flared up going from just a few acres to about 50.

Harvey indicated that crews were working on extinguishing the Kenilworth blaze on Monday.

Carbon County residents who have questions or concerns about the wildfire may contact the incident management team at 613-4204.

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