When fire broke out, Sanpete County was ready

This bucket drop near a large house in Milburn contributed to one of what Sheriff Brian Nielson calls “amazing saves” of homes threatened by the Hilltop fire. The owners of the home told emergency personnel that once firefighters swung into action, they “felt safe.”


When fire broke out, Sanpete County was ready


By Robert Stevens and Suzanne Dean




INDIANOLA VALLEY—The Sanpete County response to the Hilltop Fire could be compared to an army preparing in case war breaks out.

Helicopters filled up by dipping into an irrigation pond in Milburn. Then they dumped water to make it safe for ground crews to come in and create defensible space around homes.

For years, even decades, the Sheriff’s Office, emergency services coordinators working under the Sheriff’s Office, the county fire warden and volunteer fire departments have planned, acquired equipment, trained and worked on projects to create “defensible space” near vulnerable communities.

All those efforts came together in what officials at all levels are describing as the remarkable response last week to the fast-moving Hilltop Fire.

“The footprint of this fire, in the location that it is, to be in the position we’re in with the limited amount of loss, is incredible,” Sanpete County Sheriff Brian Nielson told a community meeting on Thursday, Aug. 9, a couple of days before the fire was declared 100 percent contained.

“The local fire departments—the county, the state, with some federal assistance—did a fantastic job,” said Tim Roide, incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service Type 2 Incident Team, which was called in from another fire in Reno, Nev. on the third day of the fire.

“When we showed up, we just pretty much picked up where they left off and finished up. So good work, all of those individuals.

“We travel all around the western United States, we do this for a living, and we see it (cooperation) frequently, but we don’t always see it, so you are fortunate to be in this community of genuinely good people working for common goals. You should be proud of that.”

In a briefing with local media on Monday, Sheriff Nielson said the success in fighting the Hilltop Fire traced to efforts long before the fire.

For instance, the sheriff said, Tom Peterson, the county fire warden, knows the landscape where the fire broke out well. He went in last year and in prior years with equipment that scrapes along the ground grinding up brush. He also arranged for many taller trees to be trimmed on top. That reduced the above-ground “canopy,” which is the factor most responsible for fires generating high flames and spreading rapidly.

The fire warden also got his people ready, the sheriff said. “Tom has done an amazing job for years and years training with our local fire agencies. He has made sure many of them had their red cards and were trained and certified to fight wildland fires….

“I don’t know if he would have brought that up, but Tom has put blood, sweat and tears into the organization part of being ready for these incidents before they happen. That is what puts Sanpete ahead of so many other places.”

Leanne Fox, public information officer for the Utah Division of Fire, Forestry and State Lands, who was also present at the local media briefing, agreed. “I would say that this fire was different than many because of how much preparation was already under way when I had arrived, and that is thanks to Tom and the Sheriff’s Office.”

Another important factor was an understanding among Sanpete County players about how command and control should work. “We all have quite of experience in incident management,” Sheriff Nielson said. “We work together enough that we know how things need to go.”

Out of the box, Nielson and Peterson divided up areas of responsibility. Peterson took charge of fire fighting. The Sheriff’s Office, including Jason Albee, county emergency management coordinator, took charge of everything else.

“We wouldn’t have been successful if the Sheriff’s Office hadn’t been able to take over things like evacuations and traffic control so we could focus on fire suppression,” Peterson said at the briefing.

The first 911 call on the fire came in at 3:45 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 6. Peterson was actually fighting another small wildfire fire in Aspen Hills, outside Mt. Pleasant,  when the call came in.

Officials have said the fire broke out in Blackhawk Estates, a cabin-style subdivision between Hideaway Valley and Indianola. They have also described it as “human-caused.” However, Fox said at the local briefing, the protocol is to not talk about how the fire started or who started it until an investigation is complete.

“Once the responders arrived on the scene, they took into account all the structures that were under threat and began calling in more resources,” Fox said. “The fire had grown significantly beyond 50 acres when I arrived from Salt Lake City to act as public information officer.”

Peterson, the fire warden, ordered the airplanes and helicopters through a state and federal interagency fire dispatch center in Richfield. A “hot shot” team, firefighters who, in essence, fight fire with fire by intentionally igniting brush to prevent a fire from spreading, was called in from the Logan City Fire Department.

With the help of the Sheriff’s Office, Peterson called out at least some firefighters from all municipal fire departments in the county, as well as requesting fire engines, water tenders and other equipment.

Sheriff Nielson, with help from Albee, called out nearly all deputies on the sheriff’s force, as well as the whole Sanpete Search and Rescue team of about 40. They also called for help from the Utah Highway Patrol with traffic control and road closures. And they contacted the Red Cross, which set up a receiving center in the Indianola LDS Ward for evacuees.

“We called people in from days off,” Nielson said. “We pulled all those that were available to come in at the time. The Utah Highway Patrol was great with help. UDOT was helping. The police chief of Fairview City himself spent 14 hours maintaining check points on the first day.”

In all, 137 law-enforcement officers and firefighters were summoned.

By late afternoon Monday, the fire was getting scary. Flames were jumping as high as 50 feet and homes, especially in the Milburn area, were clearly threatened.

Planes arrived and started dropping retardant on the flames. Helicopters with buckets dipped down and filled up in an irrigation pond on the west side of Milburn and then dropped water around homes.

The purpose of the retardant and water drops by airplanes and helicopters, officials explained at the media briefing, was to pave the way for fire fighters and fire engines to get in closer to threatened homes and work on saving them.

“One of the things that helped out initially a lot was the dozers on the scene,” Fox said. Some of the bulldozers were county-owned and a few came from a MKJ Construction in Fairview. “The bulldozers… were used to create defensible space around areas at especially high risk,” she said.

The bulldozers built berms around threatened structures. Firefighters and fire engines carrying water wetted down brush just beyond the berms. Both actions helped stop the advance of the fire along the ground.

One of the structures at risk was a large, newer white house, shown on several newscasts. Flames were practically at its doorstep Monday afternoon. The owner said he thought his house was gone.

“After firefighters arrived and began making defensive space around his home, he said he ‘felt safe now,’” Nielson said.

Despite the quick response, the fire ballooned overnight to more than 1,000 acres. On both Monday and Tuesday, a number of areas received pre-evacuation advisories—directions to residents to gather belongings and be ready to leave. Some residents got mandatory evacuation orders. Affected areas  included parts of Millburn, Hideaway Valley and Blackhawk Estates.

Another way emergency preparations long before the fire paid off was that the Sheriff’s Office had preprinted fliers on hand that officers and volunteers could deliver house to house informing residents what “pre-evacuation” meant.

To supplement the fliers and other forms of communication with residents, the Sheriff’s Office even arranged for Chief Kerry Steck of the Ephraim Fire Department to build wooden placards that could be set up on roads and in other visible locations for posting informational signs.

One of Peterson’s roles and areas of expertise is understanding the location and estimating the size of fires. His initial estimate of acreage was based on driving around the fire area. When conditions were right, he boarded one of the helicopters and flew over the fire.

The fire quieted down overnight Monday night but flared up again during the day Tuesday and grew, based on Peterson’s estimate, to 1,400 acres. Firefighters worked to build a fire line around the whole blaze.

Then Wednesday morning about 2 a.m., the wind died down. Conditions seemed right to initiate a controlled burn on the northeast end of the fire, along a ridge between Blackhawk Estates and Storm Mountain, which was in the direction where the fire had been spreading.

That’s when Peterson called in a local fire engine and the Logan Hot Shots. The back burn worked. “That’s what closed that back door” to the fire and stopped its advance, Peterson said.

In deploying resources, Nielson noted that Peterson was careful not to call in every local fire fighter, in case another fire broke out somewhere in the county.

This strategy, while obviously rational, left some local fire fighters feeling inner conflict from being unable to be help out with the Hilltop Fire.

Spring City councilman and fire fighter Cody Harmer was able to help friends evacuate early in the fire, but says he gets choked up thinking about not being able to get in and fight the fire like he wanted to.

“As soon as we got there, they wouldn’t let us go in anymore,” Harmer says. “It was a really helpless feeling watching the fire make a run at the houses and not being able to do anything.

“Yet there was a strange calming feeling also because I know a lot of the men and women from all the different stations, and I know how dedicated, competent and determined they are.

“They were going to fight harder and longer than anyone else because of a responsibility to friends and family to protect them. All the hotshots and other crews and resources that came to help are amazing, but they are not tied to this community like we are.

“I was really impressed with Sheriff Nielson,” Harmer added. “He knows how to get things done and was right there doing whatever was needed of him.”

Nielson, Peterson and Fox all said the synergy among everyone involved made the difference in the Hilltop incident.

In the end, Sheriff Nielson said, hundreds of people, mostly volunteers (especially if you include community donations and Red Cross support) were each key factors in enabling hundreds of evacuees to return to their homes, which besides some lingering smoke, remained unscathed.