West Valley Fire officials update New Harmony residents on fire status

Fire behavior analyst Ian Rickert addresses New Harmony residents during public information meeting about the West Valley Fire, New Harmony, Utah, July 2, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

NEW HARMONY — A crowd of more than 300 people filled the fire station Monday night in New Harmony, as officials held a public information meeting about the West Valley Fire, which is heading into its seventh day Tuesday.

New Harmony residents arrive at fire station for a public information meeting about the West Valley Fire, New Harmony, Utah, July 2, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

The blaze, which started as the result of an abandoned campfire, has consumed more than 10,500 acres, officials said at the meeting. The fire was listed at 5 percent containment as of Monday.

“I am absolutely committed to working with the community and all of our partners to make sure that it’s as successful an outcome as it can be, and to mitigate all of the issues that the fire might be causing you here in your community,” Brook Chadwick, West Valley Fire incident commander, said.

Chadwick outlined four primary objectives officials have set as top priorities: preserve life, minimize impacts to the community, maintain relationships and minimize impacts to natural resources and cultural resources within the area of the fire.

Approximately 650 people are currently working on the fire, Chadwick said, adding that more than a dozen elite Hotshot and smokejumper teams are now “spiking out” – sleeping near the fireline on the mountain overnight and devoting as many as 16 hours a day to battling the blaze.

Fire behavior analyst Ian Rickert said although the West Valley Fire grew quickly in size the first two to three days, it has slowed down considerably since.

Fuels and wind, Rickert said, are the two main things that have driven the fire to date.

U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Julie Thomas welcomes New Harmony residents to public information meeting about the West Valley Fire, New Harmony, Utah, July 2, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“There’s some really thick timber up top that hasn’t burned in 100 years, and it’s bone dry,” he said. “But that fire’s been sitting right up on that ridge top for several days now and hasn’t wanted to come down.”

Looking ahead, Rickert said weather forecasts for this week continue to be unfavorable. However, he did offer some hope, saying the firefighters have been making “great progress” despite harsh firefighting conditions. 

Rickert pointed to the fact that another red flag warning is in effect for Tuesday, with high winds in the forecast, but conditions are supposed to become more moderate through the rest of the week, he said.

“That puts things in our favor,” he said. “That gives our firefighters up on the hill an advantage.” He added the the fire had a “pretty good test” Monday with the winds and that it would be tested again Tuesday.

“Remember that the fuels are different on that mountainside. Even with high winds, it’s not going to come down as hard as fast as it did the last time,” he said, referencing the Mill Flat Fire that burned large swaths of timber in the same mountains in 2009.

“The fuels just don’t exist to do it. If we did nothing up there, would it move down? Yeah, absolutely. But we’re not doing nothing.”

Matt Armantrout, operations section chief for Great Basin Incident Management Team 6, referred to a map of the area as he explained where and how the fire was being fought in several areas.

Matt Armantrout, operations section chief for Great Basin Incident Management Team 6, addresses New Harmony residents during public information meeting about the West Valley Fire, New Harmony, Utah, July 2, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“It’s my job to try to keep those guys safe,” Armantrout said. “If I feel like a piece of ground is too extreme for them, I’m not going to put them in there. The reason is it’s high risk, low probability of success. I want to attack the fire with a high probability of success and if that means that fire comes down to more favorable terrain, we’re going to let it come down to that more favorable terrain and then we’ll attack it.”

Armantrout pointed out that in several areas, standing dead trees – called “snag” – are smoldering, but the fire isn’t making much progress due to lack of fuels. He said sending firefighters into such areas can be dangerous due to the risk of the trees falling over.

“It’s smoking but it’s not moving,” he said. “A lot of that stuff is going out on its own.”

The final half of the 90-minute meeting was a question-and-answer session.

Several suggestions were given to help residents better ensure their own safety and that of their homes.

For example, officials said people should clear at least a 30-foot area of defensible space around their homes.

“Take care of the space around your home so that firefighters have a safe space to defend your home,” Chadwick said.

New Harmony residents ask questions during public information meeting about the West Valley Fire, New Harmony, Utah, July 2, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

For more information, see the 32-page booklet “Utah Firewise Living,” available for download by clicking here.

Residents should also check to see if their community has a wildfire preparedness plan with an active community fire council. New Harmony’s plan, developed a few years ago, is in the process of being updated, officials said at the meeting.

In addition, citizens can sign up to receive reverse-911 emergency alerts on Washington County Emergency Services webpage.

“It really helps us out a lot,” Washington County Emergency Operations Manager Jason Whipple said during the meeting.

Many of those in attendance also put their names on an email list to receive regular updates about the fire.

Finally, citing “extreme fire danger conditions,” officials announced that counties within Color Country Interagency fire area, along with other parts of Utah are implementing Advanced (Stage II) fire restrictions beginning Tuesday, including a complete ban on outdoor campfires.

Read more: Fire managers elevate fire restrictions: No campfires, period

The restrictions come as critical fire weather conditions – high temperatures, high winds and low humidity – persist throughout the state.

Among the other major wildfires active in Utah is the Dollar Ridge Fire in Duschene County, which started Sunday near Strawberry Reservoir. It had reportedly spread to 30,000 acres as of Monday night, prompting the evacuations of hundreds of residents in Fruitland and nearby areas.

Meanwhile, the Black Mountain Fire in Iron and Beaver counties was still listed at just under 6,000 acres and 90 percent containment as of noon Monday, unchanged from the previous evening. Fire behavior was “minimal” on Monday, and approximately 130 personnel continue to fight the blaze, according to Monday’s update posted on UtahFireInfo.

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Email: jrichards@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

 

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