Brian Head fire reaches more than 70,000 acres, crews reach 80 percent containment

By Holly Coombs

More than 70,000 acres have burned since June 17 when the Brian Head wildfire ignited.

Fire crews have shrunk as they have acquired 80 percent containment, according to an update from Brian Head Fire Department on Saturday.

Monday, crews conducted a mapping mission to enable them to get a clear picture of the size of the fire.  

“Firefighters continue to implement strategies to secure the line,” according to the update.  “This is being accomplished with a number of tactics.  Crews continue to improve containment lines which means they are increasing the distance between available fuels and the fireline.”

Crews are also using ground ignitions to burn out pockets of fuel that has the potential to spot if a wind event occurred over the fire.  The public will see smoke coming from the fire area for some time.  This is due to smoldering pockets of fuel.
Firefighters continue to repair and rehabilitate areas of the fire where suppression activities impacted the resources, according to the update.

“We would like to remind the public to be cautious when entering the fire area due to fire personnel working along the roadway,” department staff statement advises.  “Five Mile and Three Mile Roads are closed due to fire activity.  The Dixie National Forest has an area closure on lands north of Highway 143.”

Access to Brian Head and Brian Head Resort can be made both through Highway 14 and Highway 143.
 A Burned Area Emergency Response Team has begun assessing post-fire conditions and recommend preventative treatments and emergency rehabilitation of the burned over areas. The team will gather information to evaluate potential threats to human life and safety, property, natural resources and cultural and heritage resources associated with post fire conditions.

The following communities remain evacuated per local law enforcement:  Bear Valley, Horse Valley, Little Valley, Clear Creek (Iron County portion is voluntary), Little Creek Ranch, Red Creek.  Second Left Hand Canyon evacuation order has been partially lifted for those structures in the northern part of that area.

Those areas in the southern half that are near or within the fire perimeter are still under an evacuation order.  All evacuations are being evaluated daily.  Evacuees can contact the American Red Cross in Panguitch Lake for more information.

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The Brian Head Fire Department advised when thunder roars to head indoors.

“Firefighters continue to work in the northern flank of the fire,” the update stated.  “They will use ground ignitions combined with direct line reinforcement.  Crews will re-inforce lines to ensure that even with windy conditions lines will hold and contain the fire. These burnouts may result in an increase in smoke which may be visible from local communities.  Thunderstorms are expected to increase in precipitation in output and intensity. (Monday) could see wetting rains.” 

Sen. Evan Vickers (Utah-R) also addressed the update on the Brian Head Fire in a media release.

“On the 17th of June, a small fire at a cabin in the Brian Head area spiraled out of control and ignited one of the largest wildfires in Utah’s history,” Vickers said. “As it stands now, the Brian Head fire has burned over 60,000 acres, most of which sit on Forest Service land. Thanks to the efforts of wildland firefighters, the fire is now 65 percent contained, and we remain optimistic about containing it further.”

The fire has put several homes in danger, Vickers said. It is threatening Garfield County’s watershed and 40 percent of Garfield County’s tax base. Several towns remain evacuated. The evacuation order for Brian Head and some areas around Panguitch Lake has now been lifted.

Congressman Chris Stewart was in Cedar Saturday July 1, and met with representatives from the Forest Service and local elected officials, including me, and then toured the fire in a helicopter.  He also had a press conference at Brian Head, he said.

“I also toured the fire area in a National Guard helicopter with Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, Representative Mike Noel of Kanab, Representative Brad Last of Hurricane, Garfield County Commissioner David Tebbs of Bryce Canyon City, and local fire officials,” Vickers said. “I have a family cabin in the fire zone between Panguitch and Panguitch Lake, and was born in Panguitch, and so very much understand just how difficult these weeks have been for all of us to watch this fire consume our beautiful area.”

Much of the scenic forests surrounding Brian Head and Panguitch Lake are burned, but there have been some encouraging moments, he said.

“In Parowan, residents have put up signs thanking the firefighters, and have been passing out gifts to them,” Vickers said.  “I personally want to recognize and thank the over 1,800 firefighters and personnel for their tireless work and sacrifice. They have saved hundreds of homes and protected almost the entire city of Brian Head.”

So far, 13 cabins had been lost and some cabins were saved just a few feet short of flames, he said.

“This is nothing short of miraculous and due directly to the heroic work of our firefighters. I know a number of them personally, one of them being my son-in-law,” Vickers said.  “They take their job very seriously and have a great deal of knowledge about fires and how to control them.  It is tough on the families of these men and women because they are often in harm’s way fighting these fires.  I hope you will join with me in praying for their safety and their success.”

Vickers cautioned being careful with fireworks and being up-to-date on fire safety.  He also said bark beetles have been a huge part of dying trees in the Iron County area.

Bark beetles infest trees, which can can devastate thousands of acres of forest, and the infestation rates are on the rise in the West,” he said. “When it spreads, the beetle infestation has the direct effect of killing trees and the indirect effect of increasing the intensity of wildfires. As most southern Utahans well know, the Dixie National Forest has seen extensive bark beetle infestations.”

He said one of the ways to prevent it is harvesting the trees.

“The idea is that by reducing the density of the forest, it reduces the amount of fuel for wildland fires.  Environmental groups, however, sued to stop timber sales in 1993 and in 2013 in the Dixie National Forest.,” Vickers said. “Without a land management plan reducing the density of a forest, the beetle infestation intensifies a fire because the fire feeds on dead wood.” 

He said he hopes that the Brian Head fire can be used a tool to work with federal delegation, the U.S. Forest Service, the BLM and interested environmental groups, in formulating policies that will work better in the future.

“I hope this would allow for the proper management of our forests and public lands to prevent a repeat of this kind of catastrophic disaster,” Vickers said.

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