Sunday, August 30, 2009

Utah Governor Gary Herbert Tours Mills Flats Wildfire Area Near New Harmony, Questions Why U.S. Forest Service Did Not Suppress It Earlier

Note: All posts about the Mill Flat fire available HERE, with the most recent post first.

After flying over the Mill Flats wildfire area near New Harmony, Utah in a helicopter on Sunday August 30th, 2009, Utah Governor Gary Herbert joined critics questioning why the 10,000-acre Mill Flat Fire that, according to a new Deseret News story, has now destroyed at least 11 structures and threatened more than 600 others was not suppressed earlier.

Gov. Herbert criticized the U.S. Forest Service's decision to let the lightning-caused fire burn as a way to clear old growth and invite rejuvenation. "A lighting strike may be a good way to manage resources but [it] may not be the best practice," the governor said. Conditions similar to those where the Mills Flat Fire is burning exist throughout central and southern Utah on public land in Gunnison, Garfield and Iron counties, and the governor plans to take the matter up with Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officials. In any event, Gov. Herbert believes the Forest Service should take responsibility since they allowed the fire to become a "controlled burn", so that state taxpayers won't bear the cost.

But acknowledging the possibility that the Forest Service may have their own hands partially tied, Gov. Herbert also took aim at restrictions on the use of federal wilderness areas. The fire started on July 25th within the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness Area after a lightning strike. Before Congress designated the area as protected wilderness, livestock were allowed to graze within the wilderness, which minimized the vegetation overgrowth that causes fires to burn more intensely when they do start. Now, because of the law, the naturally-sparked fire was the only way crews could get rid of the thick dead brush that had accumulated from a beetle infestation. And that dead brush was rocket fuel for this fire.

Two of the latest news videos from August 30th about this fire are embedded below. First, a KSL Channel 5 news video:

Video Courtesy of KSL.com




Next, an August 30th news video from KSTU Channel 13:

 

But a number of local people foresaw disaster when the Forest Service decided to just let it burn. As long as two weeks ago, Las Vegas resident Jon Petersen, whose family has a house in New Harmony, said he went up to a ridge top to look at the fire, and saw tragedy coming. "The smoke would flare up in Pine Valley and drop its ashes [and embers] on New Harmony", said Petersen.

And just last Wednesday August 26th, a town meeting was held with officials from the Forest Service. Many residents voiced their opinions during that meeting that they wanted the effort to put out the fire stepped up. At least one longtime resident even predicted the fire would grow out of control if they didn't, said Teresa Larsen, who owns a house with her husband and children in New Harmony. "It's a shame. It didn't have to happen," she said. "It's just sad. The town has been begging, 'Get this thing out.' It just didn't have to happen," she said. "They had so many chances when it was so small."

As I revealed in my previous post, the Forest Service did begin to ratchet up its efforts about a week ago when the fire began to move towards New Harmony. They began working the fire with a helicopter to try and keep it from getting into the canyon. But unfortunately, on Saturday August 30th, the "perfect storm" struck. Unpredicted strong and erratic winds, combined with high temperatures and low humidity, caused the fire to grow from 5,000 to 10,000 acres in 24 hours. To make matters worse, the Forest Service was prepared to make water drops using helicopters, but the main column of smoke collapsed, blanketing the region in a thick haze that prevented the choppers from flying. The result was the fire jumped past several fire breaks and rushed down the canyon toward structures.

Had the column of smoke not collapsed, the choppers could have flown, and most likely the fire would not have jumped the fire breaks. But by waiting so long to begin suppression, the Forest Service left themselves with too narrow a margin for error.

There are now plenty of resources on hand to combat the blaze. There are 140 firefighters, 30 fire engines, three helicopters, three single-engine air tankers, and two large air tankers on hand to fight the wildfire. An evacuation shelter has been opened at 80 South Main St. at an LDS chapel in Kanarraville in Iron County. The shelter is available to people needing a place to sleep or food or clothing. Evacuees can also call the main Red Cross switchboard at 801-323-7000.

And, for the first time, we have a prognosis. The main group of 200 homes in New Harmony were believed to be out of danger Sunday night barring any more dramatic shifts in the weather. There are still concerns about two dozen homes in the outlying areas both to the north and south of town. Firefighter must make as much progress as possible tonight because more hot and windy conditions are expected on Monday. But if all goes well, evacuated residents could be back into their homes by Tuesday or Wednesday and the fire could be under control in a week.

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