We are reminded of fires when our air turns smoky from the numerous fires in the Northwest, as was the case last week. This week, a little closer to home in northern Utah, a rash of fires started by lightning stretches that region’s firefighting resources pretty thin. I think Castle Valley residents are well aware of fire danger and most do what they can to protect their homes and mitigate potential fire hazards around their properties.
My unofficial survey of fires in the area during the past 30-plus years reveals that wildland fires accounted for nearly 80 percent of our fire activity. Thirty-one percent of those fires were caused by lightning, while controlled fires that turned ugly, and other human-caused fires accounted for another 48 percent. Sixty percent of the fires were in the town boundaries, while the other 40 percent occurred in Castleton, at the Daystar Academy, along state Route 128 or on state or Bureau of Land Management property. The vast majority of our fires happen during the summer months of June, July and August.
A hazard mitigation committee has been organized in Castle Valley to identify and come up with a strategy to mitigate the identified hazards that the community could face. Fire is one of the top hazards we face, along with floods, severe weather, power outages, rock falls and a few others.
While discussing the topic of fires at the committee meeting recently, Jack Campbell mentioned the strange manner in which fires can start in ways we normally don’t think about. As an example he cited a former Holyoak Lane resident who had gone to town for groceries and other errands, including getting water at Matrimony Spring and having two of her five-gallon propane bottles refilled and filling the truck with gas. One of the errands was to take a trip to the landfill to deposit a week’s worth of trash. We used to be able to take our household trash to the “world’s most beautiful dump” up on the Sand Flats Road, and if you saw something that you could use there people would load it up and bring it home. She saw some wooden pallets and loaded them up along with all of the other stuff from the errands and other items that had accumulated in the back of her truck.
Back home on that overcast day, all of the stuff and the truck sat in the driveway while she visited with a neighbor for a few minutes, which was long enough for the sun to focus its rays through the glass jugs of spring water, ignite some cardboard in the back of her truck and finally heat up the propane tanks until they vented with a huge gusher of flames. Obviously, the truck was a total loss, along with the contents. When the woman returned to her truck it was already engulfed in fire, but the fire department was called and an engine responded within 12 minutes to put out the remaining flames. A shift in wind also helped to save the two homes that were threatened.
Campbell said a slightly different version happened to him. “I had a clear glass jug of spring water on my kitchen floor. Later I noticed a black charred spot that I hadn’t seen before,” he said. “I finally realized that what had happened was that the afternoon western sun had shown through my kitchen window and focused like a large magnifying glass through the clear glass jug on my kitchen floor. For the glass to act as a magnifying glass, it has to be curved [like the sides of a bottle] and clear. Colored glass absorbs most of the heat of the sun instead of passing it through and concentrating the heat enough to cause fire.
“Another one that happened to me was when I was grinding some metal in my driveway in the early spring,” he continued. “It had snowed recently, and was still cold. I wasn’t thinking of fire at all. When I looked over the edge of the driveway, some sparks from the grinding had found some of last year’s cheat grass and caught it on fire. Given that the cheat grass was in some sagebrush that in turn was all around my house at that time, I had no choice but to jump in the burning grass and stamp it out. Given that I had shorts on, it probably would have made a pretty good video of me jumping around in the fire, trying to put it out before it caught in the sagebrush. Needless to say, there’s a lot less sagebrush and cheat grass around my house since then.”
When Campbell mentioned using grinding equipment it brought to mind a fire that was started by a well driller when he was grinding a casing for a well on lower Bailey Lane. The resulting fire destroyed one home and threatened two others and burned 175 acres of land before it was contained in August of 1980. It just so happened that Niels Fugal and Sons were laying telephone cable under contract with Continental Telephone and the workmen responded with their dozers and backhoes to help fight the fire. “That fire would have burned about 600 acres if it hadn’t been for them,” Castle Valley Fire Chief Frank Mendonca said at the time.
On July 4, 1987, there were no fireworks-related fires that day, but a Castle Valley hot air balloonist was attempting to raise his balloon when the fan, heat and flames required to fill the balloon ignited the dry grass and quickly spread. The balloon and basket, valued at $15,000 were destroyed and two acres were burned before the fire department was able to contain the fire.
We, of the fire department, have seen most of the ways that people can start a fire, but I’m sure we haven’t seen them all yet as people continue to come up with new ways. This has been an example of some of the weird things that can start a fire as we live in this high-hazard fire environment.