Neighbors hope for cease-fire at Utah base where wildfire began

By Paul Foy, AP
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Neighbors hope Camp Williams in Utah ceases firing

SALT LAKE CITY — The last evacuated residents were allowed home Wednesday, as some neighbors of Camp Williams said they want a cease-fire at the Utah National Guard base, where live ammunition sparked a wildfire that still burned four days later.

It destroyed three homes, significantly damaged a fourth and forced the evacuation of some 1,600 residents. About 250 were still out of their homes Tuesday night but were allowed back late Wednesday afternoon.

The fire was 50 percent contained Wednesday, but rain, hail and lightning suspended firefighting efforts for several hours, though the storm did not extinguish the 6-square-mile blaze.

Crews filled sandbags in case there is significant run-off or mudslides from rain on the burn area.

Herriman residents are questioning not only the Guard’s decision to hold the training exercises in tinder dry foothills on the edge of a metropolis, but also the location of a sprawling military installation that was built decades before the Salt Lake valley was so densely populated.

“They’re just way too close for the civilization that has caught up now,” said Val Johnson, 67, who lost his Swiss chalet-style home to the fire. “I really think they’ll have to take a serious look at it now.”

The fire was ignited Sunday by practice rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun at Camp Williams. Military firefighters thought they had controlled and extinguished the small fire, but high afternoon winds reignited the blaze, which then raced across the mountains and through cheatgrass, sagebrush and scrub oak toward Herriman, roughly a mile to the north.

When it was built in 1914, the Camp Williams location was considered remote. But development in southern Salt Lake County and in northern Utah County — on the 28,000-acre camp’s south side — have brought residential neighborhoods closer and closer to its boundaries.

Utah Army Guard Gen. Brian Tarbet has apologized for a “systematic failure” that led commanders to conduct machine-gun training without checking weather reports warning of high winds.

Camp Williams officials don’t dispute the dangers that come from training with live rounds.

Artillery fire trigged a blaze that covered roughly 500 acres and forced the evacuation of 50 homes in 2006, although none were destroyed. More recently, a fire burned 300 acres in July.

“We have to strike a balance between keeping our soldiers and airmen trained and being good neighbors, and to this point we’ve been able to do that fairly successfully,” Guard Lt. Col. Hank McIntire told The Associated Press.

“We’ve got federal players, state players and you’ve got the local community. That’s something that needs to be addressed and will be addressed with all of those people that have an interest in Camp Williams going forward.”

Johnson, who built the two-story, Swiss chalet-style home with big north-facing windows over two years in the mid-1970s, said he frequently hears gun and cannon fire coming from Camp Williams.

“I hope we do something now against them over there shooting these guns,” he said as his three Chihuahuas ran around his feet sniffing the burned earth. “I was just dreading this was going to happen.”

Camp officials said they’ve long participated in community discussions about growth near the base and have moved some artillery operations to other, more remote Utah installations.

Residents wonder if the military needs to make more adjustments.

“This is sad. This is affecting tons of people, just so they can practice,” said Brook Johnson, 30, who moved her young family to Herriman from out of state in July. “I think it’s unfair that they would have it so close and then especially to do it so irresponsibly.”

Brook Johnson got a police escort Monday to retrieve medications and essentials from her home. The blaze had come within a few hundred yards of her two-story “dream home,” where she found her belongings covered in ash and smelling of smoke.

She said she filed a claim with the U.S. Army on Tuesday and was told that the military will cover cleaning and replacement costs.

Going forward, Brook Johnson said she wants to be involved in any conversations about the future of operations at Camp Williams.

“I still live here and I’m going to live here,” she said. “So I care that they are going to be there and keep doing this.”

Associated Press Writer Jennifer Dobner contributed to this report.

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