Few losses, no casualties reported while battling 4 fires thanks to coordinated firefighting efforts

A retardant-dropping helicopter attacks the Cottonwood Trail Fire between Hurricane and Leeds, Utah, on July 19, 2020. | File photo courtesy Travis Phillips, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — With more than 16,000 acres burned, few losses and no casualties were reported during the four fires that recently burned across Washington and Iron counties thanks to a coordinated effort, communication and a large number of resources, fire managers say.

Turkey Farm Road Fire spreads across landscape shortly after it was ignited, Washington County, Utah, July 13, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Deanna Buchanan, St. George News

Suppression of a large wildfire accounts for only a fraction of the total restoration and protection efforts that are associated with the event, and those efforts extend beyond the acres burned and the number of days it takes to contain a fire.

In Washington County, three such events took place within several days of one another, starting with the 2,600-acre Veyo West Fire, followed by the 12,000 acres Turkey Farm Road Fire, both reported July 13, and finally, the 1,600-acre Cottonwood Trail Fire that left motorists terrified along Interstate 15 as they dodged the flames.

In Iron County, the 43-acre Strawberry Fire, which started July 20, burned through the Duck Creek area and was caused by a lightning strike.

In all, two homes and two outbuildings were destroyed in the West Veyo Fire, while no structures were lost in the Turkey Farm or Cottonwood Trail fires, even though hundreds of homes were threatened during each of the fires, Mike Melton, fire management officer for Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands in Southern Utah, told St. George News.

Fire suppression on a grand scale takes resources, and in this case, “it took as many as we could get to the area quickly,” Melton said.

Firefighters and equipment

Ground crews play an integral role in the effort, particularly when it comes to containment. They are on the ground, digging with hand tools, hosing down hot spots, and so on. While air support and heavy equipment are vital, it is the firefighters on the ground that make sure the fire line is holding and the fire is out.

Firefighters including John Villan (Right) pause for a photo while receiving much needed Gatorade they fight the Veyo West Fire, Veyo, Utah, July 13, 2020 | File photo courtesy of Janie Hawley, St. George News

All combined, the response consisted of more than 530 state and federal firefighters that arrived in squads, hand crews, Type I and II teams, and hotshot teams. That doesn’t include approximately 200 local volunteer and career firefighters who also worked tirelessly to protect the hundreds of homes that were threatened.

The coordinated effort between the four fires also involved a vast number of resources that included more than 50 fire engines, brush trucks and water tenders that were deployed from state and federal agencies. Just as many fire engines and trucks responded from the local fire departments, and since they were first on scene, they began an initial attack while state and federal resources were being sent to the area, which typically takes time.

This year was unique though, Melton said, because the fires took place in close proximity to one another, so many of the resources needed were already in place. This was made possible by transferring resources from a fire that is close to containment, he said, to an area or fire needs them, for example.

“By having the resources here, we were able to quickly launch an initial attack on these fires,” Melton said. “Which led to a successful outcome.”

Battling the blaze from above 

Aircraft have three major advantages over ground teams, which are speed, access and observation. As such, these resources can play a significant role in providing support to ground crews by lowering the heat of a fire so that ground crews can access a particular area, for example, or when a rapid initial attack is necessary, and they assist in creating fire lines, particularly over larger areas, Melton said.

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

To that end, it took a small fleet of aircraft to fight the three fires burning in Washington County. All told, there were 44 aircraft that had 191 flight hours, delivered more than 4,000 pounds of cargo and transported 55 firefighter-passengers during the flights.

The aircraft also dropped more than 764,000 gallons of water and nearly 334,000 pounds of retardant.

To accomplish the task, there were eight aerial supervisor aircraft, which are those that hover above directing water and retardant drops, that logged 54 flight hours, as well as 14 helicopters that flew more than 80 flight hours, along with 22 air tankers with 110 flight hours.

In addition, four helicopters and just as many air tankers joined in the battle during the Strawberry Fire in Iron County, which was a natural-caused fire that was 100% contained July 24.

Repair crews in St. George rebuild electrical line in record-breaking time

What may be less well-known is the fact that more than 43 power poles were either damaged or destroyed in the Turkey Farm Road Fire, and St. George City repair crews worked at breakneck speed to replace the wooden poles with steel power poles, Rene Fleming with the City of St. George Energy Services Department said.

In fact, the poles were replaced in record-breaking time, one city employee said, as crews worked 12-hour shifts in triple-digit temperatures to complete the installations and rebuild the line.

Moreover, the city was able to back feed electrical power, or reverse the flow of electricity, to the Millcreek wells, which powered the wells and prevented any interruption in water service while the repair work was being completed.

Coordinated effort pays off 

In all, more than 16,280 acres burned across two counties from July 13-27, the point in which all were reportedly contained. Two homes, two out-buildings, 43 power poles and a number of vehicles were destroyed between the four fires.

A shot of the aftermath of the Turkey Farm Road Fire in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County, Utah, July 2020 | File photo courtesy of the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee, St. George News

No loss of life was reported. One firefighter was injured while fighting the fire on I-15. No other injuries were reported.

With so many acres burned, and all four fires burning near homes at the time, it takes coordination and “a lot of communication between the various agencies and personnel,” to see an outcome like that, Melton said.

Responding firefighters include state and federal crews dispatched from the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Local departments that responded include Santa Clara-Ivins Fire, St. George Fire, Hurricane Fire, Washington City Fire, Leeds Fire, Diamond Valley Fire, Dammeron Valley Fire, Cedar City Fire Department and Cedar Mountain Fire Protection District. 

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

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