Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

July 12, 2012
Lightning sparks multiple fires

Blazes burn through day and night, stretch firefighting resources thin 

Lightning sparked multiple wildfires across Tooele County on Wednesday, including a sizable blaze in Pine Canyon and a grass fire on Little Mountain that approached homes on Tooele’s southeast bench.

Teresa Rigby, fire information officer for the BLM, said the most serious fire in the Tooele Valley was the Flood Fire, which was burning in Flood Canyon between Erda and Pine Canyon. That fire started at about 9:20 Wednesday night on private land and spread to BLM land. It was initially fought by firefighters from the North Tooele County Fire District. As of Thursday afternoon, it had burned 136 acres.

Minimal crews were stationed on that fire during the night because of the many fires the department has had to respond to lately, Willden said, and because during the night the fire was not moving quickly. Morning winds, however, caused it to move again, he said.

There are no homes or structures in the vicinity, but fire crews have been protecting a Rocky Mountain Power line running through the area, Willden said.

“We just made sure we protected the Rocky Mountain Power line that runs right through there,” Willden said. “If that line goes down, the entire county goes out.”

Rigby said BLM fire crews had taken over fighting the Flood Fire, though resources had to be diverted from the Rhyolite Fire, which has burned more than 1,500 acres in the Pilot Mountains just north of Wendover. That fire was the biggest priority in the area because it was approaching Tacoma, Nev.

It was because of the Rhyolite Fire that crews were pulled from the lightning-caused Castle Fire, located on the slopes of the Dugway Mountains south of Dugway Proving Grounds. That fire was small — about five acres — and not moving quickly.

“We pulled those firefighters back so they could accomplish other tasks,” Rigby said. “The Rhyolite Fire is a priority because we have structures as well as communications structures.”

Ground forces are mainly combating the Rhyolite fire at this time, Rigby said, but there would be some aerial support, as well.

Three other fires were ignited by lightning at about 9:20 a.m. on Wednesday morning, according to Bucky Whitehouse, assistant chief of the Tooele City Volunteer Fire Department.

One fire in Pine Canyon was very small and quickly extinguished — even before responders could get to it, according to Willden. Another at the corner of Main Street and Skyline Drive was also very small, and was suppressed with fire extinguishers wielded by workers at a nearby business and a police officer. That fire burned an area of about 10 feet by 10 feet.

The third fire, however, spread more quickly after igniting in dry grasses on the north-facing slope of Little Mountain on Skyline Drive at about 200 East. Whitehouse said although the fire only burned about five acres, it was near houses and the terrain and weather conditions made battling it more difficult.

“That was a challenging fire because of the steep terrain, and then with the breeze we had going, it caused hot spots to flare up,” he said. “We had a crew stationed up there [on top of Little Mountain] and any time a hot spot flared up they would put it out, so it took several hours to take care of.”

Firefighters were on scene just minutes after the lightning struck, said Colleen Bennion, who saw the bolt hit a power pole across the street of her home on Skyline Drive.

“The sparks came down and it lit all the grass up,” she said.

A fire on the dry hillside was no surprise, said Sheryl Lawrence, who lives near Bennion on Skyline.

“We’ve been wondering when this was going to go up. It’s been so dry,” she said. “I’ve even thought about taking my garden hose over there and wetting it down. It’s a shame it has to go up now.”

Lawrence said she has lived in her house for nearly 30 years and cannot remember another time when Little Mountain caught on fire. Both Lawrence and Bennion said they did not fear for the safety of their houses.

“I’m sure the road would stop it,” Bennion said.

Flames came within several feet of the road at one point, but were mostly blown up the hill and away from the road and the houses on the other side.

Because of the steep grade to get to the fire on the mountain, Whitehouse said, brush trucks were unable to get to most areas. Instead, firefighters had to hike up with hand tools or “bladder bags” — containers filled with about 50 pounds of water — to the flames.

“We got as far as we could with the hose line and then it was firefighter-intensive in terms of just walking the hillside with shovels or bladder bags to put it out,” Whitehouse said. “Fortunately we had wind direction that was blowing from east to west so it was blowing along the hillside there but it wasn’t blowing down to the structures.”

Firefighters left the scene at about 1:30 p.m., Whitehouse said. Towards the end of their response, the wind changed direction and turned the fire back on itself, he said, which helped to finish the job. No evacuations were ordered and no one was injured.

An unusual weather phenomenon was to blame for the almost simultaneous fires.

“That was an extreme storm cell that came through with a lot of dry lightning in it,” said Whitehouse.

Another fire, the Four Pole Fire near Ibapah, started last night and burned about 20 acres. That fire was human caused, though, Rigby said. It was contained by members of the Wendover Volunteer Fire Department.

Rigby said fighting so many fires requires prioritization.

“The main priority right now is the Rhyolite Fire, and then the Flood Fire is also a priority for us,” she said. “Things are spread out with the many fires we have, so we’re just trying to prioritize — put the power where we need to.”

Lisa Christensen

Staff Writer at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Lisa covers primarily crime and courts, military affairs, Stansbury Park government and transportation issues. She is a graduate of Utah State University, where she double-majored in journalism and music, and Grantsville High School.

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