Salt Lake-area wildfire 50 percent contained; crews hope to continue gaining ground

By Paul Foy, AP
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Crews hope to continue gaining ground on Utah fire

HERRIMAN, Utah — Firefighters looked to maintain their momentum Wednesday on a Utah wildfire ignited by Army National Guard members during weekend machine-gun training.

Nearly half the evacuation orders still in effect for the Salt Lake City suburb of Herriman were lifted Tuesday evening after fire officials reported the 6-square-mile blaze was 50 percent contained.

“The lines held better than we expected,” fire information officer Jason Curry said. “It was actually the best-case scenario for us.”

Authorities earlier said winds and flare-ups were making it too dangerous for residents to return to the 450 homes closest to Camp Williams, a guard training base about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City. But fire officials said Tuesday evening those risks had subsided and the occupants of about 200 of those houses were being allowed to go home.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for another 250 homes near the fire’s western flank, where officials said the blaze was most active.

The fire broke out Sunday at Camp Williams, with residents of more than 1,600 homes originally forced to flee. Three houses were destroyed and a fourth was damaged in nearby Herriman.

Utah Army Guard Gen. Brian Tarbet has apologized for what he called a “systematic failure” that allowed guard members to conduct live-fire training exercises Sunday despite tinder-dry conditions and predictions of high winds at Camp Williams.

Tarbet said no one checked to see that the National Weather Service had posted a “red flag” fire warning before the machine gun exercise was allowed to continue in the foothills of the Oquirrh mountains. He also said guard commanders waited two hours to call outside fire agencies for help.

Guard Lt. Col. Hank McIntire told reporters Tuesday those responsible would be held accountable.

“If we need to take internal action, we certainly will,” McIntire said. He did not elaborate.

The so-called Machine Gun fire was ignited at about 12:40 p.m. Sunday by practice rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun. Camp Williams, founded in 1926, covers 44 square miles — nearly twice the size of Manhattan.

Officials said a fire crew with a fire truck thought they contained the flames by about 1:30 p.m. Unified fire officials were called at 3:22 p.m., after flames began spreading fast.

“Our fire crews were on standby, responded and corralled the fire. They got it under control, but the winds came up, and the fire spread and got beyond what we could handle ourselves,” McIntire said.

Overnight winds of more than 40 mph fanned the fire.

When the drill got under way, the National Guard said the fire hazard was moderate. There was little wind, temperatures were below 75 degrees, and humidity was 13 percent — typical for Utah’s dry climate.

Fires caused by artillery shells or other weapons at military installations are not uncommon. In May 2007, a flare dropped from an F-16 on a training flight sparked a fire that burned 17,000 acres in New Jersey. Artillery practice sparked a huge wildfire in July 2009 outside Marseille, France.

At Camp Williams, a fire touched off by artillery burned 500 acres in September 2006 and forced the evacuation of about 50 homes. None were destroyed. A more recent fire burned 300 acres in July.

Utah National Guard officials said they can usually contain fires. But residents and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon questioned the National Guard’s decision to hold live-fire exercises in dry conditions.

Lt. Don Hutson of the Unified Police Dept., the agency that oversees Salt Lake County, called the practice flare-up a “perfect storm” that kicked up violently with winds of 40 to 50 mph.

The fire has caused no major injuries, officials said, although two police officers were treated for smoke inhalation and a third for minor injuries after being hit by the vehicle of a driver trying to return home.

Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur in New York City contributed to this report.

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