Wildfires frequent at Utah Guard base where machine gun-sparked blaze raged out of control

By Paul Foy, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wildfires frequent at Utah base where blaze raged

SALT LAKE CITY — Firearms and explosives training at a Utah military base have ignited dozens of wildfires in the past three decades, including one that swept into neighborhoods and drove residents from more than 1,600 homes, according to a review of documents requested by The Associated Press.

Camp Williams officials readily acknowledge the dangers that come from training with live rounds in tinder dry hills on the edge of a metropolis, but insist they can manage the risks and have no plans to move from the Utah Army National Guard base 26 miles from downtown Salt Lake City.

But the latest blaze — a wind-whipped September fire ignited by machine-gun training — has renewed residents’ calls to relocate the 28,000-acre camp, which has been encroached upon by residential neighborhoods since it was built in 1914 in a remote area.

The fire blackened 6 square miles of dry brush, destroyed three homes and damaged dozens more.

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

Information obtained by The Associated Press from a state government database shows that firearms and explosives were responsible for 34 of the 82 wildfires reported at the sprawling base since 1973.

Under an open-records request filed by the AP, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands queried its statewide database of wildfires associated with Camp Williams. Officials cautioned that the results may not offer a complete account of fires started on the base.

Most fires at the base are quickly contained. An artillery fire trigged a blaze that covered 826 acres and forced the evacuation of 50 homes in 2006, although none were destroyed. More recently, a fire burned 300 acres in July.

None of them approached the destruction of what officials are calling the Machine Gun Fire.

A day after the blaze started, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon questioned the National Guard’s decision to hold live-fire exercises in dry conditions.

More recently, aides for Corroon’s campaign for Utah governor said he would have nothing more to say about whether Camp Williams should exist on the edge of a metropolis of 1 million.

But the Unified Fire Department, which has jurisdiction over the county, says it can live with the risk.

“Wildfires are always an issue, but Camp Williams has done a pretty good job of mitigating those fires,” said Battalion Chief Duane Woolsey, the wildland coordinator responsible for marshaling people and equipment to fight wildfires.

Commanders say they follow strict protocols that assess wildfire risks before each training session. On Sept. 19, however, winds of 40 mph or more whipped up a 5-acre blaze the Guard thought it had contained. The flames quickly advanced on Herriman.

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

The cause of wildfires at Camp Williams can’t always be determined. The state’s database says 10 of the fires since 1973 had no obvious cause. Arson was listed as causing another eight fires. Lightning started seven more. Two fires were set off by “cutting/welding/grinding,” according to the database query.

Brook Johnson, 30, nearly lost her $395,000 home in the latest blaze. Fine ash seeped inside their home, leaving an odor of smoke from the fire that came within a few hundred yards of her door.

“People are more aware of Camp Williams now,” said Johnson, who moved to Herriman three months ago with her husband and three children. “They know what it can do. It’s scary.”

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