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.
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.
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
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.
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