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BIRDSEYE, Utah County — Residents of Birdseye breathed huge sighs of relief Wednesday after learning about the heroic efforts of firefighters who saved all of the homes in town.
"Fabulous work. My hats off to them," said Birdseye resident Connie McClellan. "They've done a wonderful job."
Birdseye was evacuated Tuesday afternoon after wind dramatically pushed the Wood Hollow Fire along the west side of Highway 89 into Utah County and in the path of Birdseye.
"In 15 minutes it just exploded," McClellan said.
By Wednesday afternoon, residents were allowed back into their homes and all of U.S. Highway 89 was reopened while helicopters continued to put out hot spots. What they found when they returned home was blackened landscape that amazingly circled barns, homes and other structures.
"It came real close. They did a great job. They worked all through the night," said Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Harold Curtis. "We had all of the different structure protection agencies as well as the wildland firefighters. The fire burned right up to (Highway) 89 last night. All it would have took was one good wind gust to cross 89 and we would have been fighting a much different fire today."
If the wind had pushed the fire to the east side of the highway, Curtis said the fire was directly in the path of numerous homes.
"If it would have crossed, all the Eagle Landing homes, even with all the protection they have in place, they would have been in danger there, especially with as dry as everything is. And then we had a whole new fuel load on that side of the road. This side of the road, it burned last year, so it wasn't nearly as bad when it got to that point."
Approximately 3,000 acres burned on the Utah County side. McClellan said the fire came within a quarter-mile of her house. She heard about one home that may have suffered some damage, but she had not heard of any home that had been destroyed.
The lifting of the evacuation order in Birdseye and news that the homes had been saved was the second example of great firefighting efforts Wednesday.
Down the road, residents of Fairview, Sanpete County, were earlier allowed to return to their homes, ending a 20-hour evacuation of the entire town.
Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, fire crews with bulldozers cut a fire break around the southeast portion of the fire.
"The dozer lines they were going to dig in around the fire line has been accomplished … and they feel very confident the fire will remain under control. They also feel confident if the winds do pick up in the afternoon, that the fire line they cut in will be substantial to retain the fire," Fairview Mayor Jonathan Benson announced Wednesday.
The evacuation order remained in effect Wednesday for the fire-ravaged communities west of U.S. Highway 89 in Sanpete County, however, including Indianola and the Oaker Hills subdivision.
More than 1,200 residents were placed under a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday afternoon after the Wood Hollow Fire made dramatic runs toward the city on the outskirts of town.
The fire came within a few hundred yards of a turkey farm, within less than a mile of structures and within a little over a mile of some primary residences, Benson said. Although no main structures burned, Benson said over the next few months residents would be fixing fence lines and other items that burned.
"It's not only the flames, it's the smoke that's rolling through town. Several times standing out here last night, you could feel hot ashes landing on your arms," he said.
More than 100 residents took advantage of the shelter set up by the Red Cross at North Sanpete High School in Mt. Pleasant.
Not all residents obeyed what Benson called a "mandatory evacuation" order, however. The Home Plate Cafe next to city hall, for example, was open Wednesday morning for business with customers inside eating breakfast.
When asked about those who chose to stay and businesses that remained open, Benson would only say, "We're going to have to address those situations."
But later, Benson noted, "I don't know that it's a big enough issue to worry about."
The names of people who chose not to evacuate were written down, he said. If the fire had actually started burning parts of the city, Benson said he would have pushed a little harder to get every resident out.
"My feeling at this point is I'm not going to push that issue," he said.
The Wood Hollow Fire on Wednesday morning was estimated to be at 46,190 acres — about 70 square miles — and was about 15 percent contained.
The fire made dramatic runs on its northern and southern fronts Tuesday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of not only Fairview, but stretching into Utah County and forcing the town of Birdseye to also evacuate.
Sanpete County Sheriff Brian Nielson said no new structures burned in Sanpete County Tuesday. An exact count on the total number of structures burned has been difficult to obtain, officials said. The only confirmed report was that 14 homes and 50 structures in the Oaker Hills subdivision had been destroyed by fire, according to the sheriff's office.
There was a report Wednesday that a total of 56 structures in Sanpete County had burned. Nielson said he could not confirm that, but noted the total number or structures burned was likely much higher than 56. The problem, he said, was determining from the rubble the difference between a primary residence and a structure such as a shed, barn or trailer.
The hardest hit subdivisions were Elk Ridge, Oaker Hills and Indian Ridge, all located west of Indianola.
The body of a man was found near a burned home in Elk Ridge by search and rescue crews documenting the burned structures on Tuesday. Nielsen said Wednesday that tentative identification had been made and family members had been notified. He was waiting for the medical examiner's report before releasing his identity.
The sheriff's office also received a report of a missing person in the area on Tuesday, leaving open the possibility of an additional victim.
"You look at the size of that fire and there could be more victims. I hope not and can't speculate whether there are or not," Nielsen said.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries Tuesday. Fire officials did not have much information about the injuries Wednesday, calling one of them a minor back injury. A third firefighter had previously suffered minor burns.
A Red Flag Warning remains in effect again until 9 p.m. City and county officials said all eyes will once again be on Wednesday's weather, calling it "erratic" and "unpredictable."
"The best phrase that describes the fire conditions today is explosive fire conditions. If people remember how fast that fire spread from its origin to where we are now, especially on that first day and again yesterday afternoon, ... there's a reason we're in the position we are, and we don't take evacuations lightly. We want to have people back in their homes and property. But we want to be safe," Nielsen said.
"The fire at night always looks like it's under control, until the daytime heat and the winds pick up. Yesterday was a perfect example of being confident about the fire ... and that's what we want to avoid today," Benson added
The number of personnel assigned to the Wood Hollow Fire has doubled since Tuesday morning, sitting now at 690, with 589 of those being firefighters. There were also eight helicopters assisting on Wednesday.
The biggest progress Tuesday night was made by crews with bulldozers who cut a firebreak around the southeast portion of the fire near Fairview. Fire and city officials felt optimistic Wednesday morning that those fire lines would hold.
"I can't say enough about the firefighters," said Benson, who referred to the crews fighting the fire as "guardian angels." "We had firefighters sleeping in the cemetery, we had firefighters in residents' homes on the outskirts of town. I can't say enough about what they've done.
"I need to take my hat off to these men and women out fighting the fire because that's who's protecting this town. It's not me. I take advisement from those who know what they're doing, and they're the ones who know what they're doing," the Fairview mayor said.
Meanwhile, as crews battled one massive fire, smoke from the nearby Seeley Fire continued to rise above the mountain.
That fire was estimated to be about 10,000 acres as of Wednesday afternoon with no containment. A group of about 100 girls from the Mt. Pleasant LDS Stake had to be evacuated from a girl's camp in the Miller's Flat area Tuesday.
Carbon County towns of Scofield and Clear Creek, in addition to areas such as Gentry Mountain, North Skyline Drive and the area north of Millers Flat, were all evacuated. Campers were also warned to stay out of the Huntington Canyon/Fairview Canyon area.
The fire made has moved onto Gentry Mountain, according to fire officials. High winds and steep terrain have hindered suppression efforts there. But firefighters said they were able to save artifacts from the 1930s era historic Stuart Guard Station, a museum and information center in the canyon.