National Incident Management team takes command of fire burning near Pine Valley

A lightning-caused fire burning on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest resulted in a mandatory evacuation of Lloyd Canyon resdidents. Washington County, Utah, June 21, 2016 | Photo by Tyler Truman, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — After increased wildfire activity near Pine Valley prompted a state of emergency declaration Tuesday along with mandatory evacuations, the U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday that the National Incident Management Organization has been brought in to take over fire operations in the area.

The lightning-caused fire, located on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest, is currently at 691 acres and is zero percent contained as it continues to burn in heavy, dead and downed timber and brush, approximately 2 miles southwest of the Pine Valley community.

Lightning-caused fire burning on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest, Washington County, Utah, June 21, 2016 | Photo by Scott Alvord courtesy of Washcosafety, St. George News
Lightning-caused fire burning on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest, Washington County, Utah, June 21, 2016 | Photo by Scott Alvord courtesy of Washcosafety, St. George News

The National Incident Management team led by Incident Commander Bill Hahnenberg took over the Saddle Fire at approximately 6 a.m. Wednesday.

There are currently 355 fire personnel assigned to the incident, the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday. Fire crews are working on a fire line around Lloyd Canyon to create a barrier between the fire and the community. Crews are also working to improve clearance around homes immediately threatened.

Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher declared a state of emergency Tuesday as the Saddle Fire reportedly doubled in size. Washington County commissioners ratified the Sheriff’s declaration.

The formal state of emergency allows for government entities to bypass some normal processes for spending, County Administrator Dean Cox said, and allows quicker access to funds if needed.

If more than 100 homes are threatened in a fire emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can authorize additional resources to help the county, Cox said. The declaration also puts the state and federal government on notice that the county may need additional resources.

FEMA Region 8 announced Tuesday that it has authorized a Fire Management Assistance Grant to help pay the state and local costs of fighting the Saddle Fire.

While no structures have been lost, the U.S. Forest Service said at 10 a.m. Wednesday, evacuations are still in place for Lloyd Canyon residents and the Pine Valley Recreation area.

An area closure is also in place for the Dixie National Forest. This includes all nonmotorized trails leading into the Pine Valley Wilderness, Grass Valley Road #011 south of Pinto, and Mahogany Bench Road. Pine Valley Road #035 remains open to residents only.

A lightning-caused fire burning on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest resulted in a mandatory evacuation of Lloyd Canyon resdidents. Washington County, Utah, June 21, 2016 | Photo by Tyler Truman, St. George News
A lightning-caused fire burning on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest resulted in a mandatory evacuation of Lloyd Canyon residents. Washington County, Utah, June 21, 2016 | Photo by Tyler Truman, St. George News

The evacuation order is expected to be in place “until the threat of the fire has been mitigated and it is deemed safe by Emergency Response Officials and the County Sheriff that it is safe to enter,” according to a post on the U.S. Forest Service – Dixie National Forest’s Facebook page.

High winds, high temperatures, steep slopes and rocky terrain kept firefighters from safely attacking the fire in its early stages on the ground.

Multiple drone intrusions also compromised the safety of aircraft and fire crews and further hampered firefighting efforts when the intrusions resulted in air resources being pulled from the fire line Monday, allowing for the fire to progress toward Pine Valley.

On Twitter, Gov. Gary Herbert tweeted Tuesday: “Residents of Utah, stop flying drones over fires. Get out of the way and let firefighters do their job.”

There is currently a 5-mile temporary flight restriction zone around the Saddle Fire.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Northwestern Special Service District are offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the drone operator who interfered in Saddle Fire suppression efforts Monday.

The Sheriff’s Office said it will have zero tolerance for the reckless operation of drones which interfere with fire suppression efforts and compromises the safety and property of others.

When one woman asked “why the drones can’t be tracked electronically back to their origination point?” on the U.S. Forest Service – Dixie National Forest’s Facebook page, the forest service replied:

The Forest Service does not have equipment to track random aircraft. We are set up to fight fire. These drones have been spotted by our pilots and policy is they are to stop air operations and set down until the threat of the drone has passed.

Washcosafety posted on its Facebook page Wednesday that drones flown over wildland fires are “putting lives at risk for a snapshot,” citing several factors:

  • Rotor systems on helicopters are very vulnerable to impacts by drones
  • Drone intrusions always result in automatic shutdown of firefighting aircraft.
  • Shutdowns put ground resources at risk as they depend on bucket drops
  • Lives, homes and resources are put at risk during shutdowns
  • Pilots are not able to see drones, especially at low elevations
  • Aircraft move from one incident to another without warning as needed
  • Even the most accomplished drone operators are not able to maintain safe distance
  • 161 firefighters have died in wildland fire aviation mishaps. Aircraft already have inherent risks, drones multiply the danger
Lightning-caused fire burning on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest, photo shot from Dammeron Valley, Washington County, Utah, June 21, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Lori Cuskelly, St. George News
Lightning-caused fire burning on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest, photo shot from Dammeron Valley, Washington County, Utah, June 21, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Lori Cuskelly, St. George News

Aside from mechanisms existing for legitimate users such as media and utilities to gain access, the Washcosafety post stated, Utah law prohibits the operation of unmanned aircraft over wildfire scenes.

Utah legislators passed a law restricting unmanned aircraft after drones flown in wildfire areas had become such a serious problem. The new law, which took effect in May, makes 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.

Anyone with information regarding drones flying in the area of the Saddle Fire should contact the Washington County Sheriff’s Office at 435-634-5734.

A public meeting about the fire is scheduled to be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Pine Valley Fire Station. For more information, call Saddle Fire Information at 435-590-2736.

For more information about resident evacuations, contact Washington County Emergency Operations Center at 435-634-5730.

Resources

Email: kscott@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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7 Comments

  • Bender June 22, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    When Utah takes over its federal lands instead of calling in NIMO for the big fires, we’ll call Commissioner Gardner’s son-in-law. He’s got a sweet dually 4×4 and can load it up with a kiddie pool full of H2O. Maybe the local Mormon missionaries can pitch in also for service project hours. We got this covered.

    • mesaman June 22, 2016 at 9:00 pm

      You are really up to your ears in bigotry, Bend over. Maybe you should consider relocating (better than leave, right?). Of course if you have normal intelligence you knew what the culture was like, but then, who knows.

      • .... June 23, 2016 at 8:53 am

        Lmao. Look who’s talking about bigotry !

      • ladybugavenger June 23, 2016 at 12:39 pm

        Just because something has been going on for a long time, doesn’t mean it’s right. Just like people that say “I’ve been doing this job for 20 years” soooooo it doesn’t mean you are doing it right. Been doing it wrong for 20 years…….good thing I came along to show you. 🙂

  • knobe June 22, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    Good info about the drones being a hazard to the rotors on the fire aircraft .
    These articles have been very informative about a number of issues .
    Good Job !

    Now we hope to get whomever is flying them to STOP !

  • Captain Bob June 23, 2016 at 9:28 am

    I sent this to our Governor.

    On Monday June 13 my wife and i were headed to Pine Valley to look at homes. We noticed a small amount of smoke comming from a spot near the ridge of the mountain. We assumed correctly that the fire had been started by lightning. My reason for writing is why did they not order an air strike on the fire when one or two pine trees were burning. In fact for two days nothing was done. Now the fire is out of control and I hear on the news that they are blaming drones for not being able to fight the fire.
    While I agree that it takes a pretty stupid individual to fly a drone during a fire, however the real issue is not even being talked about. I have to wonder who is the person who failed to take action quicker and we wouldn’t be dealing with this problem now. I know they new about the lightning fire as soon as we did because we passed fire fighting personel on our way back to St George later that day.

    I don’t claim to be an expert in fire fighting and im sure there are other items in play that I’m unaware of but I can’t for the life of me imagine that an air strike couldn’t have been arranged sooner than it was.
    I would appreciate your comments and I will be sending this to the media also.
    Thank You for your listening ear.

    Robert Wilcock

  • ffwife June 24, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    Yes Captain Bob, please be educated about fire before you throw the agency on the sword. The fire was started in the Wilderness and is burning in heavy dead and downed timber, brush, surrounded by steep and very rocky terrain. Fire personnel can’t take motorized anything into the wilderness without jumping backwards though more hoops than you can imagine. Even dropping on a fire is highly regulated due to environmental regulations enacted through the never ending trail of environmentalists lawsuits. Unfortunately this has created much of the mess we have now including the filing of lawsuits to disallow the logging of dead timber due to the wide spread beetle kill in the forest, a big ugly problem that creates great fuel for fires.

    Fire is mother nature nurturing the land. Continual fire suppression has also created the fuels for large fires because mother nature was not allowed to do her job. To answer your question, some fires, especially ones started in the Wilderness areas are allowed to burn to help stop the cycle of the large fires. If the fuels had been allowed to burn at their natural pace, there would be less fuel. Fire is as natural to the land as air is to you.

    Fire management does prescribed burns in areas to help eliminate forest floor fuels and give fire fighters a better probability of catching a fire through fuel reduction. Yes there is risk with this, but many hundreds of thousands of acres are successfully treated through this process of fuel elimination.

    You build in the trees, you may have to deal with a fire problem. Others build in areas with other types of possible natural challenges. This is simplified, but if you really want to know you can Google it up.

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