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Saddle Fire evacuation order to be lifted; another drone spotted in area

By Ben Lockhart | Posted - Jul. 11, 2016 at 9:41 p.m.


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PINE VALLEY, Washington County — Fire managers plan to lift a voluntary evacuation order affecting the Lloyd's Canyon area beginning Tuesday morning as crews continue to make progress on the nearby Saddle Fire.

The wildfire was 45 percent contained as of Monday evening, covering about 2,295 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The Lloyd's Canyon evacuation order will be lifted beginning at 8 a.m.

Despite the progress, crews worry that their airplanes and helicopters risk colliding with a drone every time they’re in the air over the southern Utah wildfire after an unauthorized drone was spotted over the blaze for the fifth time.

“It does really stop and make us re-evaluate our use of aircraft,” said Megan Saylors, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, which is heading a team of agencies fighting the fire.

No firefighting aircraft were in the air when an unmanned aircraft was spotted over the fire Sunday, but an earlier drone sighting Friday evening forced them to ground their aircraft for several hours.

"When you’re in a helicopter … trying to see a flying object that is about the size of a laptop or slightly larger is hard," Saylors said.

The interference is not only a significant safety concern for people in the firefighting aircraft, she said, but it also hampers crews' ability to contain the fire.

"When we have to ground our air aviation resources, it gives us one less way we can progress," Saylors said. "When you don’t get to use the helicopters, you start to realize how much usefulness they provide us."

It’s unclear if the same drone has been flying in all five occasions, she said.

Fire managers decided to lift the Lloyd's Canyon voluntary evacuation order, effective Tuesday, following a meeting about the fire's risks Monday. Pine Valley Recreation Area's campsites were also reopened Monday.

"The public can still expect to see smoke and some occasional fire behavior … from town," Saylor said. "That will continue to happen especially as it becomes drier and warmer this week."

Saylors thanked Pine Valley residents for being "more than helpful with their support and understanding" while crews continue to battle the fire, which was sparked by lightning June 13.

Another community meeting about the fire was scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Pine Valley Fire Station, 680 E. Main.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating the drones and has offered a $1,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of whoever is flying them.

Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Crouse said deputies have received a few calls but are still investigating whether they have any good leads.

Anyone with information has been asked to call the sheriff’s office at 435-634-5730.

A 5-mile temporary flight restriction over the fire makes it illegal to fly a drone in the area. Utah also passed a law earlier this year making it a misdemeanor to fly the aircraft and interfere with firefighting efforts. That offense carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and $2,500 fine. The penalties are heavier if the drone collides with firefighting aircraft.

Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday announced he would ask lawmakers to consider bumping up those penalties during a special legislative session this week.

Contributing: Associated Press

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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