Some Salt Lake-area fire evacuees allowed to go home; blaze 50 percent contained

By Paul Foy, AP
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Salt Lake-area fire estimated 50 percent contained

HERRIMAN, Utah — Firefighters made better-than-expected progress Tuesday on a Utah wildfire ignited by Army National Guard members during weekend machine-gun training, and nearly half the remaining evacuation orders were lifted.

Fire officials said at an evening briefing the fire was 50 percent contained and that residents of about 200 homes in the Salt Lake City suburb of Herriman were being allowed to return. Evacuation orders remained in effect for another 250 homes near the fire’s western flank — where officials said the 6-square-mile blaze was the most active Tuesday.

Authorities had earlier warned that winds and flare-ups were making it too dangerous for residents return to the 450 homes closest to Camp Williams. But fire information officer Jason Curry said Tuesday evening the fire lines “held better than we expected.”

“It was actually the best-case scenario for us,” Curry said.

Three houses were destroyed and a fourth was damaged after the fire started Sunday at Camp Williams. Authorities ordered the evacuation of more than 1,600 homes Sunday night.

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, about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City.

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 permitted 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 that those responsible would be held accountable.

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

Administrators with the Unified Police Department, an agency overseeing Salt Lake County, said they recognized that the evacuation orders for parts of Herriman, a community of about 18,000, would cause hardships.

“We understand the frustration and how inconvenient it is to be forced from your home,” police Lt. Don Hutson said.

On Tuesday, bulldozers, aerial tanker aircraft and National Guard Black Hawk helicopters were supporting more than 500 firefighters and guardsmen cutting fire lines .

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, which burned scrub oak, sagebrush and cheatgrass.

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.

Hutson 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.

will not be displayed