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Officials update status of wildfire

Sun Advocate publisher

A Sikorsky sky crane helicopter has a temporary release of fire retardant as it pumps the tank on the machine full during operations at the Carbon County Airport. The map inset shows the size of the Mathis fire with a small addition to the southwest side during a fire line jump on Tuesday.

The Mathis fire, which started last Thursday after a lightning strike hit the ground above Willow Creek Canyon, continued to dominate the northern Carbon County skyline on Wednesday.

Ranked as the number one wildfire of concern in the nation because of the site's proximity to coal mines, gas wells and power lines, the blaze had burned almost 1,800 acres by the middle of the week.

While the size of the local blaze pales in comparison to the Milford Flats incident in southwestern Utah, which had consumed 340,000 acres on Wednesday, the flames of the Mathis wildfire have been driven by canyon winds and extremely dry conditions.

"At this point, I would say we have the fire about 20 percent contained," said Richard Harvey, incident commander, on Wednesday. "Yesterday, the fire jumped our lines because of the wind, but that jump, along the southwest edge of the fire line only burned about five acres before we were able to get it back under control."

Harvey and the entire fire fighting team are headquartered at the Western Energy Training Center near Castle Gate.

Emergency crews have put out a second lightning caused fire near Kenilworth. The wildfire burned about 60 acres of grass and junipers after starting last Friday.

The effort to quell the Mathis blaze has been a momentous task.

Firefighters from as far away as Missouri have been battling the blaze. On Wednesday, three helicopters were bringing a continual stream of water and fire retardant to the lines to help crews with boots on the ground.

The incident was dubbed the Mathis fire because the blaze started on land owned by the Mathis family in the Emma-Whitmore Park area. The primary fuel for the wildfire is grass, juniper and various kinds of timber that grow on the tops of and in back of the Book Cliffs.

During the Wednesday mornings briefing, United States Congressman Jim Matheson made a speaker phone call to the group. Matheson said he would support the crews in any way on their efforts to battle the blaze.

One of the firefighters commented afterward that he had never heard a congressman call a fire team before and give support like that.

The effort to fight the fire is similar to a war.

The coordination between ground and air crews has to be close so that the retardant and water are dropped in the right place.

Much of the process is coordinated by a supervisor in an airplane far above the fire.

Ground crews call in when they feel they need support and the helicopters are dispatched on a priority basis by the eye in the sky to the areas they are most needed.

Another way in which the effort resembles a war action is in the logistics.

To support more than 200 personnel on the fire line and the many support personnel that are behind them requires a lot of materials and supplies.

A large catering service was brought in from Montana to supply the food needs of the crews. The service has three large trailers, three tents and a sanitation unit set up on the grounds of the WETC.

In addition the headquarters includes support for finance, logistics, weather, public information and other support services.

All these functions and others are set up in one of the WETC buildings.

Robert Survick, incident meteorologist for the Mathis fire team, explains what to expect for weather during an early morning briefing at WETC.

The headquarters staff has set up their tents within a couple of the buildings larger rooms for sleeping quarters. Setting up those tents affords some privacy for the members of the headquarters staff for their indeterminate stay at WETC.

"This fire has been difficult not only because of the dry conditions, but the terrain it is in is difficult too," said Harvey. "We have a lot of places where we are trying to get a clean fire line established and that isn't always easy in this type of geography."

The fire which has been stopped near Cordingly Canyon on the east, was of concern initially because of the nearness of the mining activity it could affect. Some old mines exist in the canyon, but are not active.

As many residents have noted the fire seems to flare up in the afternoon and be very subdued in the morning. Some have questioned if the efforts against the fire continue at night.

"We are very careful about fighting any kinds of wildfires at night," said Harvey. "It is a good time to knock them down because it is cooler and often winds are down, but fire fighters out in the field can't see things like rolling rocks and cliffs. We can get a lot of people hurt if we fight blazes at night. I will not rule that out under some conditions but our main goal here is to get the fire out as quick as possible with no injuries to anyone."

Fire behavior is dependent on many factors. The most important being the weather said Harvey.

"What the weather does, it does," he said. "We can't do anything about that but react properly to its actions."

Robert Survick, the incident meteorologist, said that the weather for Wednesday into Thursday could include some winds and some dry thunderstorms as well. He said a high is moving to the east and the winds will probably shift so they come from the southwest.

Another nuisance for fire crews can be spectators, although the incident commander did not refer to that problem on Wednesday, as he did Monday when he was interviewed.

All Carbon County residents are urged to stay away from fire areas.

Nationally, there are currently more than 250 wildfires of various types burning across the country.

Of the total number of incidents, 61 are considered large fires, with 10 of the blazes erupting in last day or so.

At present, nine of the large wild fires are contained while 42 are not.

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