Officials reflect on preparation that led to successful Uintah fire evacuations

Tuesday , September 12, 2017 - 5:30 AM

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

WEBER COUNTY — When a freakish tornado touched down in Washington Terrace last September, the incident provided public safety personnel with a big challenge.

However, it also gave them insight and preparation that proved useful when the Uintah fire sparked Tuesday morning, Sept. 5, and tore through 619 acres in southern Weber County.

“We had a little bit of practice a year prior with the tornado in (Washington Terrace). That was similar in that we had to evacuate neighborhoods for safety concerns, go door to door to make sure residents were safe and close off parts of the city,” said Lt. Nate Hutchinson, public information officer for the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, on Monday. “Our law enforcement response went a little smoother because that was fresh in our memory.”

Even so, each disaster presents its own set of problems. In this case, officers dealt with evacuees who had to leave home on a moment’s notice, and some needed to return briefly to retrieve medications and other necessities.

Those judgement calls were difficult to make, Hutchinson said.

“We were trying to keep everything safe, and we had to close sections of road and keep them closed, which kept people away from their homes,” Hutchinson said. “It’s hard to balance being compassionate but not add any undue stress or safety issues that we don’t need to.”

The sheriff’s office placed 50 deputies in southern Weber County on Tuesday to assist with the closures of Highway 89 and Interstate 84, as well as subsequent evacuations in the Uintah Highlands, Uintah and South Weber.

“We called in corrections, patrol and school resource officers to assist,” Hutchinson said. “We were able to get a lot of hands on deck.”

Weber County officials posted a short video on their Facebook page Monday recapping key events associated with the fire.

The emergency 911 call about flames on the Uintah Highlands hillside came in at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday. By 7:45 a.m., law enforcement had closed portions of state Highway 89 and I-84, both of which serve as major thoroughfares for people driving to work and to school.

By 10 a.m. Uintah Elementary and South Weber Elementary students were being evacuated to the Dee Events Center near the Weber State University campus. Amid gusty winds and tinder-dry conditions, firefighters battled the rapidly growing blaze, and about 900 residents found refuge at the center.

Over the next two days, the community responded with myriad donations and support, and by Thursday evening, all residents were allowed to return home. Firefighters had the blaze 100 percent contained by Sunday morning.

According to the Weber Fire District Facebook page, the blaze impacted a total of 18 structures. Three homes were destroyed, along with four sheds and outbuildings. Among the damaged structures were two more homes, one mixed commercial property and eight sheds or outbuildings. 

As of last Friday, the district estimated fire suppression costs at $849,000. But through it all, no loss of life occurred.

Weber School District spokesman Lane Findlay credited prior practice drills for helping to make Tuesday’s evacuation of schoolchildren run so smoothly. Just last April, they conducted a drill with Uintah Elementary students, so staff, teachers, students and parents knew what to expect.

“There’s quite a bit that goes into that in terms of planning and participation,” said Findlay, a former lieutenant with the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. “This past year we had a couple of reunification drills, and Uintah Elementary was one of those schools. It really involves cooperation between schools, laws enforcement, parents and students, and we’re very fortunate we have a district team that’s well trained, so everything fell in place with the decision to evacuate.”

A few months ago, Weber Fire District and other agency personnel also completed a three-day drill in and around the steep terrain where the Uintah fire broke out Tuesday. 

“One reason they practiced in that area is because they knew it was like a chimney with the wind. They identified it as an area that could be hazardous,” said Sasha Clark, communications consultant for Weber County. 

The fire, initially sparked by a downed power line, rode the wind to travel westward. 

“The speed of the fire took us by surprise, how quickly it spread. Initially it was everything east of Highway 89 and that was our focus,” Hutchinson said. “And then it jumped the highway ... I don’t think we anticipated that. Initially the highway provided a firebreak, but as it grew, the embers blew and the dryness allowed it to spread along the Weber River. It was the perfect conditions for it.”

Hutchinson also praised animal control officers who plunged in to help rescue livestock and family pets.

“Fields were on fire. That assistance was needed,” Hutchinson said. “We get that they’re family members.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 183 fire personnel, one hotshot crew, 32 engines and four helicopters were deployed to fight the blaze both from the air and on the ground. And now damage assessment is under way, along with area cleanup.

As of Monday, 10 dumpsters had been placed throughout the area for impacted residents to deposit green waste. They were also urged to take other debris to Weber County’s Transfer Station, where dumping fees would be waived with proof of address.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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