Winds hamper firefighting efforts on 2 blazes in Washington County; authorities looking for teen suspects

ST. GEORGE — Two wildfires in Washington County continue to pose challenges to firefighters as high winds blow through the region Thursday. Authorities are looking for three teenage suspects believed to be responsible for starting one of the blazes with illegal fireworks.

A plane drops retardant on a wildfire in Southern Utah, July 15, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Carla Hunt, St. George News

The approximately 2,600-acre Veyo West Fire is 40% contained as crews made significant headway in setting control lines throughout Wednesday, while the nearly 12,000-acre Turkey Farm Road Fire was 25% contained as of Thursday.

Kevin Abel with Dixie National Forest told St. George News that crews made great progress on the northwest edges of the the Veyo West Fire and managed to hold the control lines during windy conditions Wednesday afternoon.

The fire is at 2,618 acres, Abel said, and firefighters are still putting out spot fires as crews continue to set and strengthen the control lines surrounding the blaze throughout Thursday.

State Route 18 is providing an advantage for the Veyo fire, with the road acting as a fortified containment line that prevents the fire from moving to the west, allowing crews to focus their efforts on areas that are still vulnerable.

Video of the fire with footage courtesy of Janie Hawley can be viewed at the top of this report. 

The Turkey Farm Road Fire stands at 11,993 acres and is 25% contained as of Thursday.

Turkey Farm Road Fire continues to burn throughout the night, Washington County, Utah, July 14, 2020 | File photo courtesy of Mark Bergmann, St. George News

“We will likely see containment by this afternoon,” Abel said Thursday morning. “But we won’t say a fire is contained or partially contained until we know it’s going to stay within those control lines.”

Containment lines around a fire take time to create because a majority of the work is done by hand, particularly with the Turkey Farm Road Fire, which includes many areas that are inaccessible by bulldozers or other heavy equipment.

“We have firefighters and hot shot crews out there getting those lines in place, which means they are digging down to the mineral soil to make sure it is clear of any fuels.”

Weather has been a huge factor in prolonging containment on both fires, Abel said. During the day, firefighters have been making significant headway, fortifying the fire lines to stop the fire from spreading. But when the winds kick up in afternoon, it makes the task very difficult.

“And the winds have kicked up – every afternoon this week,” Abel added.

Authorities seek information on suspects

Surveillance video shows a vehicle believed to be connected to suspects involved in starting a wildfire in Washington County, Utah, July 13, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, St. George News

Fire investigators are asking the public for help identifying the individuals responsible for starting the fire with illegal fireworks, according to Utah Fire Info. The suspects are described as three teenage males seen driving a white sedan on Cottonwood Road at around 9 p.m. Monday.

A new tip line has been established for the public to call with any information that might help fire investigators identify the suspects at 775-355-5337.

Drone intrusion halts blitz on Turkey Farm Road Fire 

A drone intrusion that took place Tuesday on the eastern edge of the Turkey Farm Road Fire created a complete shutdown of an operation that involved “heavy aviation assets at work,” Abel said, as pilots were making drops in rapid succession during the blitz attack to save homes.

Poster depicts a warning about drones flying near wildland fires. | Image courtesy of Dixie National Forest, St. George News

“That was a critical time, and the entire operation stopped,” Abel said. 

Additionally, aerial firefighting aircraft fly at very low altitude, the same as drones flown by the general public, and pilots have no way of detecting drones other than by seeing them, which is nearly impossible because of their small size.

Adding to that disastrous mix, Abel said, is the fact that firefighting aircraft typically fly in smoky, windy and turbulent conditions, and safety depends on knowing what other aircraft are operating in the airspace and where they are at all times. Without that, he said, it “we have the perfect environment for a mid-air collision.”

As such, a Temporary Flight Restriction, was put in place and remains in effect at this time, he said, meaning there should be no air traffic – manned or unmanned – except for those supporting the operations.

“That airspace is also under aerial supervision,” Abel said. “And they have enough to do directing the aircraft making the drops, not a drone flying in a restricted area.”

Fire retardant and wildfires  

Long-term retardants contain retardant salts — typically agricultural fertilizers — that alter the way the fire burns, reduces the fire’s intensity and slows the advance of the fire, even after the water the substance originally contained has evaporated. It is designed to cling to fuels due to its enhanced viscosity, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Smoke billows from the Turkey Farm Road Fire in Southern Utah, July 14, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Gerard Dauphinais, St. George News

Retardants are ideal for slowing or stopping the spread of wildland fires by chemically altering the fuels that feed the fire, rendering them non-flammable. This is accomplished by halting combustion, through an endothermic chemical reaction, a process which absorbs thermal energy from its surroundings, usually in the form of heat.

Essentially, it smothers the fire. 

Retardants are most often used on huge wildfires that would otherwise be out of control and unmanageable, and their effectiveness is only hampered by strong winds. 

Retardants are also effective in saving property and lives when a powerful wildfire pops up or changes direction, as was seen in the Turkey Farm Road Fire when the winds drove the fire to the east where hundreds of homes near Green Valley Drive were located.

The red colorant is made up of iron oxide that is added so that air tankers can visually track where it has been dropped, which in turn tells them where to deploy the next application.  Additionally, iron oxide remains visible until it either fades from the sunlight or weather removes it. 

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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