Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and the Covered Bridge area in Spanish Fork Canyon were placed under mandatory evacuation Thursday evening after the Pole Creek Fire spread rapidly throughout the day.
The fire was roughly estimated to be 20,000 acres, according to incident commander James Turner. That fire grew Thursday from an estimated 3,400 acres earlier in the morning.
Turner said the estimates are even rougher than normal because aircraft had to be grounded after Thursday morning due to high winds in the area.
Several cities were put on pre-evacuation notice throughout the day, including Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills, as well as parts of Spanish Fork, Payson and Salem. By 6 p.m., the pre-evacuation warnings were raised to full mandatory evacuations for Elk Ridge, Woodland Hills and the Covered Bridge area in Spanish Fork Canyon.
“The Pole Creek Fire has reached Santaquin Peak, putting them in greater danger,” the Utah County Sheriff’s Office said in an update just after 6 p.m.
The evacuation displaced thousands of residents. Woodland Hills is home to 1,548 residents and Elk Ridge is home to 3,757 residents according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
These communities joined areas already under evacuation orders from Wednesday evening, including the area from Nebo Creek to the Thistle Junction in Spanish Fork Canyon. Those evacuations affected about 50 to 60 people, said Sgt. Spencer Cannon with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, and as of Thursday morning, only one person refused to evacuate.
The Red Cross and the Nebo School District opened a shelter at Salem Hills High School for those evacuated.
RV homes and trailers filtered into the Salem Hills High School parking lot Thursday evening as adults and parents watched the smoke and planned for what’s next.
Scott Abbott and Lyn Bennett evacuated their Woodland Hills home with their cat, bella.
“We’ve been prepared all summer,” Bennett said as they watched flames appear on mountains to the south.
They planned to spend the night with a friend as they waited to hear when they’d be able to return to their home.”There’s not much we can do now,” Bennett said.
Marina and Charles Spence opened their trunk to put out snacks for those evacuating while Marina Spence walked around to check in with their Woodland Hills neighbors.
“I’m hoping State Farm is as good as advertised,” Charles Spence said.
They’ve lived in their home for 22 years. Thursday was the first time they’d had to evacuate. The Spences had prepared to evacuate all day and became discouraged as they heard crews had ceased fighting the fire by air due to severe winds.
“I decided you can replace everything except people,” Marina Spence said.
Rick Pray had begun packing water into his RV when he heard about the pre-evacuation. They’d had an evacuation plan and had kept an eye on the fire.
“We thought last night it was getting pretty close,” Pray said.
He and his wife, Wendy, who is the mayor of Woodland Hills, had been texting to confirm people had evacuated.
He said the community had held evacuation drills before.
“We all know being up there it is something that can happen,” he said.
The Utah County Sheriff’s Office let residents know that pets and animals that needed to be relocated due to the fire could be taken to the Spanish Fork Fairgrounds on a first-come, first-served basis. Trailers couldn’t be left at the fairgrounds and food would not be provided for the animals.
Residents were asked to hang something on their doorknob to show that they had evacuated or were aware of the evacuation advisory.
Tracking the fire
Though fire officials were unable to get an accurate estimate of the fire’s size Thursday, Turner said that they are trying to track the fire’s heat using satellite imagery. The process produces rougher estimates than normal.
Rough estimates as of 6 p.m. put the fire near 20,000 acres, according to Turner.
As of 6 p.m., Turner estimated that the fire was about four miles from the communities of Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge/ To put that in perspective, the fire traveled five miles Wednesday, Turner said.
The winds were blowing northeast, meaning the fire could reach those southern Utah County cities, Turner said.
“If we have strong down canyon winds and the winds keep persisting like they are right now, there is a good possibility that they could,” Turner said.
As of the update 6 p.m., the fire was at 2 percent containment.
A Type 1 team will take over command of the fire Friday morning. There are 250 personnel currently fighting the fire.
The fire started Sept. 6 and was caused by a lightning strike.
Road and canyon closures
On Thursday morning, U.S. Highway 89 was closed at the U.S. Highway 6 junction near Thistle. The closure remained in place Thursday night.
The road is closed from mile marker 312 to mile marker 300, near the Utah-Sanpete county line.
U.S. 6 was briefly closed Thursday at about 11:20 a.m. between the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon and Helper — more than 50 miles of highway. It was reopened 30 minutes later according to the Utah Department of Transportation.
Cannon said the fire did cross U.S. Highway 89 at about 2 p.m. and burned about 300 acres on the east side.
Santaquin Canyon was also evacuated on Wednesday night, and officials are planning to implement further closures, said Suzie Tenhagen, the spokesperson for the Forest Service Incident Management.
Payson Canyon is also closed, according to a press release from the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and the Nebo Loop Road in Nephi Canyon is closed.
The Spanish Fork Ranger District asked the public to avoid the Summit Trail No. 113 and stay away from the active fire area.
Bald Mountain Fire
In addition to the Pole Creek Fire, firefighters are also actively fighting another fire on Bald Mountain near the Utah-Juab County line. The fire has grown to more than 500 acres near the Mona since it started as a lightning strike on Aug. 24.
The Bald Mountain Fire threatened Camp Koholowo, but according to the Payson Fire Department, those buildings were not burned.
“The meadow and trees to the south have burned,” Payson Fire Department said in a Facebook post Thursday. “The trees to the east and west have burned but some are left.”