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Firefighters save UT town

People in southwest Utah - in towns such as Gunlock, New Harmony and St. George - breathed a sigh of relief on Monday as wildfires spared their homes.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | June 27, 2005

"It’s like putting a match to gasoline."

—Steve Rundquist

People in southwest Utah - in towns such as Gunlock, New Harmony and St. George - breathed a sigh of relief this week as wildfires spared their homes.

A 12,000-acre fire neared the edge of New Harmony. Some homes were within 50 feet of the fire. “Firefighters lit a back fire one mile from New Harmony toward the advancing fire and basically saved the town,” said Dr. Steve Rundquist, community support specialist for the Utah Division of Emergency Services and Homeland Security.

“At one point we had five wildland fires going on over the weekend,” said Rundquist. The largest burned about 60,000 acres and at one point threatened the town of Gunlock. But evacuation orders for that town ended at 8 p.m. on Sunday night.

Now the worries are more distant but not yet over, he said. “There is a huge wildfire over by the Nevada-Utah line that is moving our way. It’s not posing an imminent threat but what we’re looking at could be a quarter-million-acre fire that crosses over into Utah.”

Currently that fire is not threatening any residences.

The multiple fires in Utah over the weekend were caused by lightning strikes, said Rundquist. Conditions are ripe for even more blazes.

“We have had such a wet winter and spring,” he said. “It caused the grasses to grow everywhere - what is called cheat grass. It normally gets a couple inches high in the spring. Then, when the hot summer weather hits, the lack of water just kills it off. But right now, it’s two feet, nearly four feet high in places. That has provided such an abundance of fuel. We are under 100-degree temperatures here. Thunder and lightning storms are common in the afternoons. It’s like putting a match to gasoline. This is a tremendously high fuel load for fires.”

The area seemed to go directly from flood season to fire season, he added.

In January, floods hit the same region, and Rundquist helped establish the Dixie Disaster Recovery Coalition, a group of faith-based and community-based groups that helped affected residents make a long-term recovery. Now, said Rundquist, that coalition is nearly wrapping up the flood recovery.

“What I’d like to do is evolve that into a Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) coalition," he said.

Church leaders in southwest Utah reported they spent the weekend checking on church members and neighbors, as they found out fires were growing rapidly. They were especially checking in with neighbors who don’t have telephones or other means of communication.

There were 19 fires burning 500,000 acres in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Firefighters were close to containing a 67,000-acre fire in California’s Mojave National Preserve that destroyed five homes and two cabins.

In Arizona, a 92,000-acre fire northeast of Phoenix was heading away from populated areas. And, in Washington, a 22,000-acre blaze was burning grass and wheat fields on farmland in Walla Walla County, but was not threatening residences as of Monday afternoon.

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