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Firefighters defend homes threatened by Utah wildfire

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Courtesy U.S. Forest Service An aerial view of Utah's Lost Lake Fire, which continued to burn out of control in southcentral Utah Saturday.

By nate Carlisle

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jun 09 2012 10:50AM
Updated Jun 10, 2012 12:02AM

Richfield • Steve Nielson gives a lot of credit to the U.S. Forest Service.

"If they hadn’t done the work they had done, we’d lost everything," said Nielson, whose seasonal home on Monroe Mountain in Sevier County is under threat by the Box Creek Fire.

Nielson’s compliments Saturday came even though it was the Forest Service that started the fire as a prescribed burn in Fishlake National Forest. But Nielson said the Forest Service has done a good job eliminating trees and other fuels that could have made the Box Creek Fire a lot worse.

"Overall I think the Forest Service has done what they can to protect us best they could," he said.

The Box Creek Fire began in mid May as a prescribed burn but winds expanded it last week. It has grown to at least 2,300 acres and cost at least $700,000 to fight, according to Interagency Fire.

Forest Service spokesman John Zappel said firefighters and aircraft were able to prevent significant expansion of the fire on Saturday despite strong winds.

"They’re just continuing to work on it and make a lot of headway," Zappel said.

The Box Creek Fire is 20 percent contained. Nielson’s home is one of about 25 threatened by the fire.

Farther south near the town of Teasdale, the Lost Lake Fire has expanded to 2,056 acres. But Interagency Fire spokesman Jason Curry said the fire expanded only slightly late Friday and early Saturday.

"The main thing is all of our containment lines on the north and northeast side contained very well," Curry said.

As of Saturday, the Lost Lake Fire was 50 percent contained. It began June 3. Investigators believe humans caused it but have not caught the culprit or culprits.

Prescribed or "controlled" burns that have gone out of control include a blaze in Colorado earlier this year and the 48,000-acre Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos, N.M., that destroyed more than 400 homes in May 2000.

It’s rare for prescribed burns to get out of control, said Matthew Hurteau, an assistant professor of forest resources at Penn State University. Hurteau was among a group of scientists who a few years ago wrote a paper calling for more prescribed burns in U.S. forests.

Among other things, prescribed burns can eliminate fuels and excess trees, place nutrients in the soil and help prevent big fires.

Hurteau in an interview Saturday said the risk of a prescribed burn going out of control is "one of the risks we run when we try to reintroduce a natural process like fire that we’ve suppressed for so long."

Nielson’s home is in an enclave of mostly seasonal homes called Monroe Meadows. Judy Watts also has a home there.

Watts hasn’t tried to visit there for days. She said she’s upset at how the Box Creek Fire started but can’t pinpoint what the Forest Service should have done differently.

Watts appreciates that the Forest Service has tried to reduce the threat of fire and acknowledges everyone was surprised by the strong winds.

"It’s scary," Watts said. "We’re safe for now."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle

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