A quiet, Tooele City neighborhood stands as a living symbol of the power of miracles and the human spirit’s strength to bounce back after a tragedy.
As reported on today’s front page, Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the July 19 wildfire that destroyed 11 homes, damaged 17 more, burned several vehicles, and displaced dozens of residents.
At around 10:30 p.m. that day, a suspected arson-caused wildfire, started at 700 South just west of Coleman Street, raced northward across a vacant field of tall, dry grass. Fueled by high winds, a wall of flames described by witnesses as 20-30 feet high, slammed into homes and other structures on American and Van Dyke ways, and Concord Drive.
Despite the fire’s stunning swiftness, miraculously no residents, who fled from their homes with only the clothes on their backs, died in the chaos. Many of them only learned about the fire because of citizens who ran from home to home to awaken or alert them that they had to flee for their lives.
There were more miracles that night and the days to come. Of the 80-100 firefighters who responded from Tooele and Grantsville cities, North Tooele Fire District, Tooele Army Depot, Stockton, Rush Valley and Terra, only a few were treated and released for smoke inhalation.
Without their professionalism and courage, the wind-whipped wildfire may have continued to rage through the city’s west side, taking countless homes and possibly lives. And while fire crews worked throughout the night, another miracle began: the generosity of Tooele County citizens. Even before the fire was out, donations of food and water began to arrive at a Red Cross evacuation center at West Elementary.
A Red Cross disaster official for the Salt Lake area, said she had been deployed to disasters around the world and had never before seen such a swift response of open generosity from a community.
Local contractors and organizations next stepped in to help with the cleanup, which totaled 240 tons of debris. Next came an unexpected and welcome outpouring of cash. Contributions from local citizens and across Utah exceeded $150,000 and were proportionally distributed to fire victims by a committee at City Hall. By October, damage estimates and initial recovery costs totaled more than $1.3 million.
Amazingly, Tooele City Fire Chief Bucky Whitehouse said he is still contacted today by local citizens who ask if they can provide any assistance to the fire victims.
Now a year later, seven of the displaced residents in the neighborhood have rebuilt and returned to their neighborhood. An eighth has chosen to rebuild elsewhere. As for the remaining three, their outcomes are currently unknown.
On this one-year anniversary of the July 19 wildfire, let’s again thank and acknowledge the fire crews who risked their lives to stop the inferno from causing more damage, to everyone who responded to help fire victims with cleanup, and the generous outpouring of donations, money and other assistance.
Such compassion further affirms the Tooele County community’s big-hearted reputation of when the chips are really down, local citizens always find a way to help those in need.