SALT LAKE CITY — Thousands of homes were evacuated from two small Utah communities on Friday as high winds whipped up a brush fire triggered by target shooters and pushed the flames toward houses and a nearby explosives factory.
Nearly 9,000 people had been evacuated, Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon told The Deseret News.
The blaze initially scorched about 750 acres of cheat grass, sage and pinyon juniper south and west of town, but by Friday, a combination of strong winds and rising heat shifted the fire’s direction and sparked rapid growth, Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Teresa Rigby said.
By Friday evening, the blaze had grown to more than 4,000 acres. Rigby said fire crews had cut containment lines around 20 percent of the blaze, but that number slipped as flames spread.
About 100 firefighters were working the blaze on Friday, with more teams expected, Rigby said. Air support was being provided by one air tanker and one helicopter. A red-flag warning for high wildfire hazards was posted across Utah, and Rigby said authorities are expecting winds of more than 20 mph by afternoon.
Sheriff’s deputies with bullhorns rolled through Saratoga Springs neighborhoods ordering the first evacuations at about 10 a.m., after flames had burned to within half a mile of homes. By midday, evacuations were expanded to include a portion of nearby Eagle Mountain, just east of Saratoga Springs.
Paul Fraughton / The Salt Lake City Tribunevia AP
Homeowner and commercial photographer Renee Keith said she and her husband decided the fire had burned “too close for comfort” and began packing before authorities ordered them out. Keith said she packed her children’s baby books, the computer hard drives, one bag of clothes and camera equipment.
“I was kind of nervous, especially when we were packing the car,” Keith told Reuters. “Ash was falling on us as we were pulling away.”
The Keiths said their biggest concern was for a nearby plant that makes explosives for the construction and mining industries. The fire was reportedly burning within one mile of the factory, but authorities said the flames appeared to have burned around it.
It was not clear Friday how long authorities would keep residents away, Rigby said.
In neighboring Colorado, fire managers on Friday reported making progress against a 100-square-mile fire burning west of Fort Collins, near the Wyoming border, after two days of cooler temperatures, calmer winds and higher humidity.
Officials there said containment of the fire, which ranks as the most destructive on record in Colorado, had increased to 60 percent.
But a return of triple-digit temperatures and gusty winds in the forecast posed a renewed challenge to firefighters battling the lightning-caused blaze, fire commander Bill Hahnenberg said.
The fire has been blamed for one casualty so far, a 62-year-old grandmother whose remains were found last week in the cabin where she lived alone.