A pair of explosive wildfires continue to burn toward hundreds of homes in southern Utah County, driven out of control by high winds as firefighters struggle through difficult terrain and low visibility.
The Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires, both started by lightning strikes, burned through a combined 68,347 acres as of Friday evening, according to infrared reports from fire officials. The fires have not joined together yet.
“I can’t understate this — this is a difficult fire, and we have a number of difficult days ahead of us,” said Brian Cottam, the state forester and director of Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “Red flag condition days when are some of the worst when it comes to firefighting. We’re just at the beginning of this event.”
An estimated 5,000 people have been evacuated from Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and the Covered Bridge area of Spanish Fork Canyon. Parts of Spanish Fork, Payson and Salem are under pre-evacuation advisories.
Gov. Gary Herbert and several state forest officials attended a briefing with fire personnel at the fairgrounds in Spanish Fork on Friday evening.
More than 430 personnel are currently fighting the fire, but officials expected that number to grow to 1,000 as aircraft and ground resources continue to arrive.
On Friday, air resources were used in the effort to fight both fires. According to UCSO, four air tankers were brought in and two additional tankers were on the way to help. Two helicopters were also offering support. The air resources struggled Thursday and Friday due to inversion and conditions.
“We’ve already lost a firefighter in the California fires,” Herbert said. “We want to make sure that life is foremost and protected.”
A Type 1 incident management team is on scene and another team is on the way, officials reported.
“We have a lot of structures in the pathway of the fire and that can be very, very devastating if we can’t contain them,” Herbert said. “It’s time to make sure we do our part as citizens. Listen to the directions being given by your leadership in your local cities, in the county, in the state.”
He encouraged local residents to start emergency preparations and conserve water, natural gas and food.
“Boy, if you have any sway with the man upstairs, let’s see what we can do to help with the weather,” he added.
The fires are listed as the No. 1 priority fires nationwide, said Jason Curry, public information officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
The fire burned down to the switchbacks above Woodland Hills on Friday afternoon and spot fires appeared the mouth of Santaquin Canyon, according to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.
“Crews from all over are working to keep people and property safe,” the UCSO said.
When the two wildfires began, firefighters didn’t immediately suppress outbreak as controlled fires often help get rid of heavy fuels like excess undergrowth and dead trees, he explained.
“When they do have the opportunity to see a lightning-caused fire do some good, they have an obligation to leave that option open and do it,” Curry said. “For the most part, we do a pretty good job. It’s very, very rare that decision ends up looking like this.”
Herbert said that focus now should be on fighting fires and protection of life.
“I think there are things that can be done better, but it’s not time to think of one today,” he said. “All we’re going to concentrate on is let’s get the fire out, let’s protect the properties and the people and their assets.”
What’s coming this weekend
According to the U.S. Forest Service, rapid fire growth to the north and east is expected to continue through Sunday. The weekend forecasts call for high winds, low humidity and high temperatures in the area, which will hamper firefighting efforts.
Utah County officials are expected to submit a crisis declaration Saturday morning, according to UCSO officials.
“This is a real emergency and the potential to be a significant emergency depending on what happens over the next couple of days,” Herbert said Friday evening.
A continental breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner will be provided by the Red Cross for evacuees and fire personnel at Salem Hills High School on Saturday.
As far as donations, the Red Cross says they will release more information Saturday about what supplies are needed. As of Friday evening, the items most in need of were towels and toiletries.
There will be also be a community meeting Saturday at 5 p.m., hosted by the Great Basin Incident Management Team. The meeting will be held at the Salem Hills High School auditorium, and the incident management team will be providing the most current information for both fires.
Evacuations still in place
Elk Ridge, Woodland Hills and the Covered Bridge area in Spanish Fork Canyon are still under mandatory evacuation as of Friday night.
Woodland Hills City Councilwoman Kari Malkovich said all citizens were evacuated safely. Though Salem Hills High School was available for those displaced, Malkovich said so many people have offered extra bedrooms that none of the thousands of people displaced had to spend Thursday night at the school.
On Friday evening, the only people staying overnight at the high school were local firefighters. There are trailers and campers in the school’s parking lot.
Malkovich said city officials were told the fire reached between a quarter-mile and a half-mile from the city boundaries.
“The firefighters have a plan in place,” Malkovich said. “They’re prepared and ready to do their job.”
In a meeting with residents Friday morning at Salem Hills High School, Woodland Hills Mayor Wendy Pray said fire teams from all over the county are responding to the fire and slept on the ground overnight Thursday to keep an eye on the fire and save homes. Law enforcement agencies are also helping patrol the area to ensure home safety beyond the fire.
Parts of Spanish Fork, Payson and Salem are under pre-evacuation advisories.
Thousands of residents have been displaced. 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 order 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 Sheriff’s Office.
Cannon said the Sheriff’s Office is working with residents who need to return to their homes for necessary items like medications, pets or livestock. Deputies will escort those who have needs, and access points are set up at 11200 S. Woodland Hills Drive for Woodland Hills, and 11200 S. Loafer Canyon Road and 11200 S. Elk Ridge Drive for Elk Ridge.
There may be no access to the Covered Bridge area because of ongoing fire operations.
Those who have evacuated can receive supplies at the Nebo School District’s warehouse, located at 161 E. 400 North in Salem. Evacuees can go through the east doors.
Roads and canyons
U.S. Highway 89 remains closed from the U.S. Highway 6 junction to the Utah-Sanpete County line. U.S. 6 was closed Thursday night, but was reopened by Friday morning.
Both Payson and Santaquin canyons are closed, and the Nebo Loop Road in Nephi Canyon is closed.
Schools and students affected
More than 16 percent of Nebo School District students were absent from school Friday.
There were 5,433 students absent as of Friday afternoon, according to Lana Hiskey, a spokeswoman for the Nebo School District. The district has about 33,000 students.
Schools were running normally Friday, but buses were not driving into evacuated areas. Hiskey said that students were not penalized for being excused from school for the fire.
At least 11 schools were affected Friday by the fires and evacuations, according Hiskey.
The Nebo district also treated Friday as a severe air quality day and children were not allowed outside during recess. Otherwise, schools proceeded as normal, even though there were absent students.
Interruptions in mail service
According to the U.S. Postal Service, residents in Elk Ridge, Payson Canyon, the Covered Bridge area of Spanish Fork Canyon, Birdsey and Eagle Landing areas will have interrupted mail service. Mail will not be delivered to homes in those areas at this time.
Those evacuated in Elk Ridge and Payson Canyon can pick up mail at the Payson Post Office at 955 E. 100 North during regular business hours. Those in the Birdseye and Eagle Landing areas can pick up mail at the Mount Pleasant Post Office at 55 N. 100 West. Those in Covered Bridge area can pick up mail at the Spanish Fork Post Office at 165 E. 900 North.
All mail for Woodland Hills was delivered to homes Friday.
Those picking up mail will need to present photo identification when picking up mail.