ST. GEORGE — A state of emergency has been declared as fire activity near Pine Valley continues to increase Tuesday, prompting mandatory evacuations of residents in areas of the Pine Valley community.
As of Tuesday evening, a reward offered for information leading to the conviction of anyone operating a drone in the fire area has doubled.
Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher declared a state of emergency Tuesday as the Saddle Fire, burning 2 miles southwest of the Pine Valley community, has reportedly doubled in size and is estimated to reach 800 acres by Tuesday night. Washington County commissioners ratified the Sheriff’s declaration.
After evacuating the Pine Valley Campground and Baker Reservoir, officials began evacuating Lloyd’s Canyon area residents Tuesday afternoon.
In addition to the mandatory evacuations, officials closed all nonmotorized trails leading into the Pine Valley wilderness area along with motorized roads leading to Pine Valley – including the Mahogany Bench Road, Pine Valley Road #035 and the road south of Pinto, Road #011.
High winds, high temperatures, steep slopes and rocky terrain kept firefighters from safely attacking the lightning-caused fire in its early stages as fire crews could not safely fight the blaze on the ground.
Multiple drone intrusions also compromised the safety of aircraft and fire crews and further hampered firefighting efforts. Drone intrusions resulted in air resources being pulled from the fire line Monday allowing for the fire to progress toward Pine Valley, according to Washcosafety.
“They basically lost almost two full, complete days,” Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said. “The Forest Service had the resources there, they had the planes to dump the retardant, they had the helicopters and they couldn’t fly. They weren’t able to go and hit those hot spots like they wanted to, so those hot spots were just allowed to grow, uncontained.”
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office is offering up to a $1,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the drone operator who interfered in Saddle Fire suppression efforts on Monday.
“Safety and property were compromised, and the Sheriff’s Office will have zero tolerance for the reckless operation of an unmanned aircraft which interferes with fire suppression efforts,” the Sheriff’s Office said.
In an email to St. George News Tuesday evening, Steve Haluska, chairman of the Northwestern Special Service District – which provides fire protection for the towns of Brookside, Central, Gunlock and Veyo – reported that the $1,000 reward had been doubled.
“Our district is on the border of the Saddle Fire,” Haluska said. “Our board has decided to add $1,000 to the reward offered by Washington County for information and conviction of the drone operator.”
Drones being flown in wildfire areas have become such a problem that Utah legislators passed a new law – which took effect in May – making it a misdemeanor to fly unmanned aerial vehicles in a prohibited area, and a felony if a drone collides with firefighting equipment or causes a crash.
There is currently a 5-mile temporary flight restriction zone around the Saddle Fire.
As this report is published, Renstrom said the U.S. Forest Service has more than 1,000 fire personnel working the Saddle Fire.
Anyone with information regarding drones flying in the area of the Saddle Fire is urged to contact the Washington County Sheriff’s Office at 435-634-5734.
St. George News Reporter Julie Applegate contributed to this report.
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