SPANISH FORK — Gov. Gary Herbert said Saturday he has new hope that the pair of wildfires choking the air with smoke can be stopped from destroying any of the nearly 2,000 homes that have been evacuated in southern Utah County.
“We have reason to be hopeful. I feel better today than I did last night,” the governor told reporters after flying over the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires in a Blackhawk helicopter.
But despite his confidence in the plan in place to battle what are the nation’s top two fire priorities, he said there’s “no guarantees” firefighters will be able to prevent the flames from reaching homes.
“The best you can do is hold the line,” Herbert said, noting local fire departments have engines in place if the fire does break through areas cleared by bulldozers to create a barrier.
Herbert also offered what he said was some good news, that the estimate of the actual acreage burned so far by the lightening-caused blaze has been reduced from 68,000 to 60,000 acres.
But the governor said “it’s too early to tell” when the 6,000 residents of Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and other areas threatened by the fire will be allowed to return home, suggesting it could be at least 48 hours.
He encouraged Utahns to help those displaced from their homes.
The Utah County Sheriff’s Office announced Saturday afternoon that Diamond Fork Canyon and Sheep Creek are under a pre-evacuation order and U.S. 6 has been closed in Spanish Fork Canyon.
Saturday evening, officials told an audience of concerned residents that 600 additional personnel are coming to help the 600 firefighters already on hand but there isn’t really much that can be done to check the blaze right now.
“Our ability to get in close and work the fire, especially at the north end of the fire where all the communities are, has been, well … it’s very limited,” said Evans Kuo, deputy incident commander for Great Basin Team Five.
“We could try. We could put people up there, but most likely the fire would go right over the top of our lines and we would not be able to contain it.”
He added, “I want to be brutally honest with you folks. … It’s giving us a lot of concerns.”
Earlier Saturday, Utah County Commission Vice Chairman Bill Lee had strong words for federal authorities whom he said are responsible for failing to control and contain the fires.
“Those cold fingerprints in this case are all over the federal government when it comes to this issue,” the commissioner said, calling for “all hands on deck” for now. “Let’s get this fire put out and get this emergency over with.”
Lee said he’s looking at the fires as a “crime scene because there’s a failure that has happened on our policy levels when it comes to our federal government. They knew this fire was up there.”
Still, the commissioner said, “they let it smolder around for weeks before it just blew up into this. Where’s the accountability?” He called for discussions by local, state and federal officials “because it’s affecting the lives of individuals here.”
Asked about Lee’s comments, the governor said now is not the time to point fingers.
“Back then, I don’t think anyone was sitting around doing nothing,” he said. Authorities instead, he said, tried to turn the fire sparked by lightning into a prescribed burn, intended to clear out debris.
The focus now needs to be on fighting the fire, Herbert said, promising “afterwards, we can dissect until the cows come home.”
He said he expects the fire to be a topic when he meets with federal officials in Washington, D.C., later this month.
“We will learn a lot,” the governor said. “Mistakes may have been made.”
Utah State Forester Brian Cottam said the fires were started by lightning on U.S. Forest Service land, giving that federal agency authority over dealing with them. Cottam said he was not familiar with the decisions made by the agency.
But he agreed with the governor that questions about how the federal government handled the situation should wait.
“Right now, this is about our firefighters on the ground,” Cottam said. “This is about the folks that have been evacuated. This is about their safety and comfort. We need to focus on putting this fire out.”
Lee described pine trees exploding near cabins in Loafer Canyon on Friday and said with wind gusts of up to 50 mph forecast, the flames will likely be pushed towards nearby communities.
“It’s coming,” Lee said.
The governor said the emergency declaration sought by Utah County was immediately put into place by the state to help ensure the area can receive federal assistance.
Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for residents living in Elk Ridge, Woodland Hills, along U.S. 89 from Nebo Creek to Thistle Junction, and in the Covered Bridge community near the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon.
Closed are Santaquin, Payson and Nephi canyons, the Nebo Loop Road at state Route 132, U.S. 89 between Thistle Junction and the Sanpete County line, and U.S. 6 through Spanish Fork Canyon.
Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon said it’s critical that people stay away from those areas, although authorities were attempting to accommodate people who need to return to their homes for critical needs, such as retrieving medicines or pets.
Utah County Health Department Director Ralph Clegg warned of the hazards caused by the smoke and advised residents to stay indoors as much as possible, especially those who are young, elderly or have lung issues.
Some outdoor recreational events were canceled, including city-sponsored soccer games in Sandy.
“We know it is very unhealthy to have prolonged exposure outside in this air and want to make sure to account for the health and safety of our participants, parents, coaches and staff,” a message from the Sandy Parks and Recreation states.
At the same news conference held at the Spanish Fork Fairgrounds, incident commander Marty Adell said crews are coming in from around the country bringing helicopters, tankers and engines to fight the fires.
Adell said fire lines are being set up to protect homes should winds drive the fire in that direction. It was fortunate, he said, that high winds forecast for Friday leveled off and the fires are moving at a “relatively moderate pace right now.”
Lee called the firefighting effort “the white hats. They’re here to help. That’s the cavalry coming.
For Utah County residents living near the fire, there is much uncertainty.
“Right now, we can’t see the flames because there’s so much smoke. But at night we can see them really clearly,” said Holly Beifuss, whose 23-acre property is just outside the Elk Ridge evacuation area. “We sat out last night and watched it burn.”
Beifuss said she decided to stay put with the family’s horses and mules while waiting for her husband to return from a hunting trip, but friends and family brought tractors, lawn mowers and weed whackers to help clear the pasture as a precaution.
“I haven’t felt threatened like that yet,” she said. “I’m just keeping my eye on it.”
But she did send away her daughter, son-in-law, and their young children who live in a house on the property because the smoke is too strong and they were a “little nervous with kids being here.”
Jan Newman, president of the Elk Ridge Utah Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he and others have stayed busy making sure evacuees have a place to go.
“It’s a little stressful,” President Newman said. “Everybody seems to be doing well.”
He said about 24 residents of a care center for the elderly in Elk Ridge were moved to hotel rooms and hospital beds, while other residents of the community of about 4,000 are staying with people they know.
“it’s just overwhelming to see the level of love and concern for people here in the community,” he said. “We appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers for the people here.”
Contributing: Jasen Lee