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Seeley Fire rages on

Like a gargantuan dragonfly, an Erickson Sky Crane helicopter hovers over Huntington Lake State Park Sunday for a 2,000-gallon sip of water. The giant chopper is dousing fires in areas inaccessible to ground vehicles. The helicopter is nowhere near the water skier in the foreground. Its sheer size gives the illusion of being close.
Cattlemen conduct an emergency roundup and drive for about 500 head down Consumers Wash on Thursday. Aerial surveillance has shown that cattle have also clustered in open spaces where the grass is green and danger is minimal.

Sun Advocate associate editor

463 fire fighters hold the line, helicopter war waged in rugged mountain terrain

A legion of experienced wild land fire fighters is waging an offensive and defensive war against the Seeley Fire, which by Monday had consumed more than 20,000 acres of woodland in Carbon and Emery counties.

The Eastern Arizona Type 2 Interagency Incident Management Team had deployed eight 20-member hand crews and was supported by eight helicopters, fixed-wing tankers, 20 engines and 11 water tenders.

Shifting winds have complicated fire fighting since the blaze began June 26. On Sunday, a thunderhead over Mill Canyon sent downdrafts cascading downward, blowing ash and embers outward and causing additional spot fires in nearby Flood Canyon.

Wind also shifted the smoke plume into the populated area of Price and Helper Sunday afternoon and evening.

The fire was reported to be 10 percent contained by Monday morning, but there was no estimate of when total containment could be expected.

Defensive perimeters have been held at the southwest perimeter of Seeley Ridge, Hiawatha and Clear Creek.

On Sunday, the Carbon County Sheriff's Department determined that Scofield Town residents could return home. This applies only to the full-time residents of the township. Clear Creek, the boat camps and other camping and resort areas remain under mandatory evacuation.

The Horizon and Skyline coal mines were also cleared to reopen Sunday.

The cost of fighting the fire was pegged at a little more than $1.8 million Monday morning. As of Sun Advocate deadline Monday, there had been no significant damage to structures. However, there was still a threat to some 250 residences, 15 commercial properties, 500 outbuildings, power lines, gas pipelines and communications towers.

During the early stages, the fire might have been contained, but resources were stretched too thin by emergencies across the region, according to U.S. Forest Service Price-Ferron District Ranger Darren Olsen.

"We were not the only fire around," Olsen told about 300 citizens who had gathered at the county Events Center Friday evening for a public briefing.

The fire had begun as a dry lightning strike about two-thirds of the way up the north slope of the left fork of Huntington Canyon.

This is a steep, remote area inaccessible to vehicles. The Forest Service called in 12 smoke jumpers and also were relying on helicopter support from Moab. However, the chopper had to be called away to combat the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County, which was becoming a monster.

Unfortunately, the smaller fire began to "spot." Hot ash and embers scattered through the canyon and spread into and across Huntington Canyon.

The fire has been feeding on live timber, pine bark-beetle-killed trees, and dessicated ground vegetation.

Incident commander Cheto Olais told the gathering Friday that the prevailing winds and terrain indicate the fire would trend north or northeast.

However, "I don't have a crystal ball," he said when speaking about predictions on a timeline for containing the blaze. "That depends on nature and on how well we use the resources available to us," he said.

Olais said the aviation support would be crucial in the battle because the terrain is too steep and rugged for vehicles in many places.

Engines are mainly deployed to protect structures.

Olais complimented and thanked local law enforcement for cooperation and support. This applies expecially to establishing and maintaining road blocks along paved and unpaved access routes to the fire area, he said.

It takes away one worry for the fire fighting teams, he said.

Sheriff James Cordova, whose department is handling 24-hour law enforcement in the evacuated areas of Scofield, Clear Creek, Hiawatha and Wattis, told evacuees in the group that he sympathized with their situation.

"I know it's frustrating and you want to go back. But we're not going to do that until we hear from experts in the field that it is safe to go back," he said.

Cordova said that watching the fire spread over the mountain peaks at 4 a.m. on June 26 "looked like flows of lava coming down." He and county commissioners were convinced early on that evacuations were imperative for public safety.

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