On Sunday, July 20 the late afternoon sky was lit with an incredible lightning storm. As the storm raged and passed, it left quite a shock as three fires were started at nearly the same time across the valley.
One fire started near the Croydon cemetery and burned approximately 120 acres before being put out. This fire was primarily handled by the Summit County Fire Department, but crews from Morgan were requested.
Another fire burned in the Norwoods area along Highway 66. Morgan Fire Chief Dave Rich received a call from a resident who had been sitting on their front porch and watched as lightening started this blaze. He called the fire in on his way to the fire station.
As most of the fire crews headed to this fire that eventually burned six acres, the last call came in for the Tunnel Hollow area, the canyon heading towards Taggarts. Crews were diverted from the Norwood fire, and as the crews reached Round Valley, it became apparent they would not be able to reach this fire.
“You feel a little helpless as far as you don’t have enough resources, so you start calling other resources to come help,” Rich explained of the predicament he was in on Sunday.
The Morgan firefighters helped assess the situation to determine what would be needed to douse the flames on the steep terrain.
Within a few hours the state dropped eight smokejumpers onto the fire and the scene was officially turned over to the state. The Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) took control and pulled resources from all over.
After the initial drop they added eight more smokejumpers to fight the fire. These highly trained wildland firefighters parachute into difficult to access areas. They are self-sufficient and are prepared with food, water and tools to fight fires solo for up to three days.
Every day this week more firefighters with various specialties were added. Thursday morning an entire new team consisting of 100 crew members arrived bringing the total number to 220 men and women working together to fight the fire. In addition to the 16 smokejumpers, a Hotshot team and seven hand crew teams are working tirelessly in the ongoing effort.
Overhead six helicopters, including two Utah National Guard Blackhawk helicopters, made recurring trips to aid in the work. Two Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) were available for the last several days. Four fire engines worked in the efforts to stop the fire.
Steep mountainsides and inaccessible terrain made it challenging to reach the fire. Strong winds caused the fire to spread quickly. By Thursday the flames had scorched 1,400 acres. At this point it was 20 percent contained.
“We’ve had some of our guys on the line fighting,” Rich said. While they have had some of their team working the line periodically, the Morgan County Fire Department has primarily supported the professional firefighters. They have worked to provide structure protection, water tender to fill the smaller trucks, dust control from the helicopters, and whatever assistance they can when not occupied fighting other fires around our county.
Jason Curry of the DNR stated that 98 percent of fires are put out by local resources. However, in situations like this, the state steps in with resources to fight the fire and allow the county the ability to fight fires elsewhere.
“The county doesn’t have the resources,” Morgan Fire Warden Boyd Carrigan stated of the county’s ability to stop the fire on their own. The local and state fire experts agree that having the state take control of the situation also allows the Morgan Fire Department to focus on other fires that may come up.
For example, the Morgan Fire Department responded to a call on Wednesday morning where residents smelled smoke. The firefighters discovered that a lampshade had caught on fire and they were able to stop the fire before it caused other damage inside the home. On Wednesday, several calls led them to the Mahagony Ridge area. Thursday morning they were called out to a grass fire. Local firefighters are being kept busy.
As of Thursday morning, no structures were in danger from the Tunnel Hollow fire and no injuries had been reported.
There are no livestock in the area and the wildlife appears to be safe. “The animals are pretty savvy about this stuff,” Curry said. He has observed that when smoke is in the air the animals know it’s time to move.
Carrigan watched three moose moving down to the river when the fire was moving at its fastest. While fire can seem devastating to the landscape, Carrigan explained it can end up being good for the area and allow wildlife to thrive once new vegetation returns.
For right now the lack of vegetation is creating more hazards. “This morning, fire managers assessed the fire’s progress and impact near the Weber River and observed continued rock fall into the river,” Curry stated on Wednesday.
The already steep slopes became more precarious as rocks were unleashed and could be seen rolling and falling. This lead to public closure, restricting recreational activities like fishing, tubing and kayaking, all of which are popular this time of year.
Interstate 84 was closely watched and could quickly be closed down in case the fire breached the freeway. “The biggest concern is obviously threat to life,” Carrigan said of the fire and all of their work to protect firefighters as well as citizens.
“I just want to thank the community on behalf of the firefighters for their support,” Carrigan said. The firefighters have received encouragement and gratitude from the community as they have worked throughout the week. The county council has been very supportive of the efforts and have offered to help in any way they can. “I can’t say enough about our county council,” Carrigan said gratefully. They have offered assistance with road closures and dust abatement as well as other various uses of personnel and equipment.
Morgan Middle School has graciously hosted the firefighters. Each night the men and women sleep on the middle school lawn in dozens of tents. Restrooms, meals and other accommodations set up in this area provide a place for the firefighters to rest at night.
As the fire continues to wage war on our local environment, Morgan County is grateful for all of the support they have received from firefighters coming in from all over. Community members have expressed many thanks to the hundreds of men and women who are here, diligently fighting the fire.
One local youth said, “I feel like I should salute them.” Many thoughts and prayers have been offered for their safety.