The Tooele City neighborhood wildfire on the night of July 19 was, in our opinion, Tooele County’s top news story of 2016. We retold the details of that tragedy in last Thursday’s edition, along with a countdown of other top news stories of the year.
And what a fire it was, believed to have been started by an arsonist, and causing more than $1.3 million in damage and recovery costs. Although 11 homes were destroyed, 17 were damaged and approximately 40 residents were displaced, miraculously no one died.
That miracle cannot be emphasized enough. A wall of flames, reportedly 20-30 feet high, and fueled by strong wind and tall, dry grass, slammed into homes and their unaware occupants around 11 p.m. With flames swirling around them, many residents fled with only the clothes on their backs.
But thanks to citizens who jumped into action to alert their fellow neighbors, and thanks to the skill and tenacity of local firefighters, lives were spared from the unthinkable. The destroyed wreckage of homes and vehicles, which made the neighborhood look like a firebomb had hit it, showed how easily the community could have spent the rest of 2016 in mourning.
Which is why, in part, Bucky Whitehouse, fire chief of the Tooele City Fire Department and director of Tooele County Emergency Management, has been named the Tooele Transcript Bulletin’s 2016 Tooele County Person of the Year (see related front-page story).
Whitehouse is the hands down winner of the prestigious award, because of the poised and effective leadership he exhibited while orchestrating 80-100 firefighters from nine agencies that night. Then afterward, in his emergency management role, he strategically began and tirelessly worked through the recovery process for displaced residents. Few could say he left any stones unturned.
The fire is considered to be the biggest in Tooele City’s history, yet Whitehouse is a modest man and will tell you the award needs to be shared with the firefighters who worked that night to save homes and stop flames from advancing further.
And from there, Whitehouse could share the award even more. Take the Red Cross shelter that was established at West Elementary that night, which provided short-term assistance to residents displaced by the fire. And while fire victims tried to get their lives back, Tooele County residents and others across the state donated more than $142,000 to aid in recovery efforts.
Let’s not forget the volunteer organizations and local businesses who donated countless hours of labor cleaning up 240 tons of destroyed buildings and vehicles. There were many other businesses, organizations and individuals who stepped forward during and afterwards to make a difference for those who lost everything.
The tragedy brought out the best in many people and again showed how Tooele County residents take care of their own.
Yet, some important business remains unfinished. Without the arsonist who caused the fire caught and convicted, total closure remains elusive. The investigation is ongoing; perhaps it soon will find who is responsible in 2017. That would make for a Happy New Year, indeed, and ease fears of such a wildfire from happening again.