WINCHESTER HILLS — Searches for explosives in the rural community of Winchester Hills north of St. George have become a part of life for some residents since 2007, when one resident discovered a 3 1/2-inch bazooka round that was apparently left in the area over 50 years ago; at that time the area was a Utah National Guard training range. Monday, the search continued as a private company hired by the state of Utah in conjunction with the National Guard combed an area of the community and the surrounding area with high powered metal detectors.
Residents have been using the area for recreational purposes for years, not realizing what could be buried under the red dirt surrounding the community. In addition to the bazooka round, small-arms ammunition was found in 2012 and debris from an exploded rocket was found last year on a hillside adjacent to Winchester Hills Water Company storage tanks.
“We have a historical training area that was not designated as a training area,” National Guard Colonel Robert Dunton said. “Back then, in the ’50s, it was probably just open land; and we’re not sure why they did that, but they came and trained here and probably didn’t track the ordnances that they were firing as well as they should have; and so, as this area became developed we started finding these UXOs – UXO’s an unexploded ordnance – and we wanted to be sure that this land, this area, was safe from any possible detonation from this historical munitions.”
An April 2, 2015, memorandum to Winchester Hills residents said that an investigation would take place. Limited home evacuations would be required, and a list of possibly affected properties was included. The fear of mandatory evacuations was unfounded, as several residents of the area chose to stay in their homes Monday morning. They were asked to stay in their homes while the search was conducted.
Gary Harrison and his wife evacuated the area early this morning, but came back and were allowed to return to their home.
“My wife is disabled and we cannot leave our home,” Gary Harrison said. “We’d rather stay home and suffer the consequences.”
At a meeting on April 14, representatives from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office met with residents and told them that the Utah National Guard will coordinate with the Sheriff’s Office, and only if a public safety concern arises. A communication from the sheriff’s office released Sunday said no evacuations would occur without the Sheriff’s Office coordinating the action.
“In the event that a public safety concern arises, the situation will be evaluated and proper steps will be taken to resolve the situation with the least amount of intrusion,” the communication said.
The evacuations are only for public safety reasons, Dunton said.
“We are working with the county sheriff to make sure that the public, if one of these UXO’s (unexploded ordnance), when it’s uncovered, goes off, that no damage to homes or life is created,” Dunton said, “We are asking the public to evacuate for the public safety.
Dunton added that they are not going on private property or asking people to leave their homes unsecured.
“And so we’ll come in, we’ll maintain the security, make sure nobody else comes in the property, so that they don’t have to worry about what’s going on, things like that while we get that done,” Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said, “and get them back in the home as quick as we can.”
The National Guard and the Sheriff’s Office are working with a private environmental company, Weston Solutions, to mitigate any dangers that may remain in the area. Pulsipher and other personnel from the Sheriff’s Office along with National Guard personnel were in Winchester Hills Monday to answer any questions regarding the investigation.
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