National Guard Takes Blame For Utah Wildfire

The commander of the Utah Army National Guard apologized Monday for the wildfire that destroyed three homes and forced the evacuation of more than 1,600 others.

The blaze resulted from "a systemic failure on our part," Gen. Brian Tarbet said during a news conference. "We're very sorry."

Soldiers at the Guard's Camp Williams training base sparked the fire Sunday during a live-fire training exercise on a machine gun range. Stray bullets and bombs have ignited wildfires at the base in the past. The vast military reservation 30 miles south of Salt Lake City is in mountainous terrain covered with grass, brush and desert trees that are extremely flammable in hot and dry conditions.

Early Sunday, the National Weather Service issued a "Red Flag" warning for conditions conducive to wildfire.

"Had we known that was in place," Tarbet said, "we would not have shot."

Tarbet acknowledged that military officials should not have staged the exercise without checking for wildfire warnings and dangerous weather conditions.

"We had a communication error," he said. "We should have been aware of it."

The blaze is blamed on sparks from a ricocheting bullet hitting a rock in highly flammable vegetation.

Tarbet said the Army would accept financial responsibility for damages. After the news conference, his office issued a news release that describes how to file claims for losses.

About 1,400 homes in Herriman, Utah, which is adjacent to the base, were still subject to an evacuation order Monday evening. The wildfire threat had diminished given the arrival of a cold front that lowered temperatures and calmed winds. Breezes shifted Monday morning, turning the flames back into the wildfire and away from neighborhoods.

But fire and police officials continued to keep thousands of people out of their homes due to hotter temperatures and stiffer wind in the weather forecast.

Dozens of homes were saved overnight by bulldozers cutting fire lines and firefighters deploying hoses house to house. No serious injuries were reported.

Firefighters took advantage of the favorable weather Monday to dig more containment lines and deploy five air tankers that can drop thousands of gallons of flame retardant foam. Water-dropping helicopters are also assisting in the firefight, along with elite federal crews known as "hotshots."

"We're doing all that we can to keep everybody safe," said Kim Osborn, spokeswoman for the federal wildfire incident management team called in to manage the blaze. "It's looking good now."

Fire managers were also able to get a better look at the area affected and revised the size of the wildfire to 4,300 acres.

Tarbet provided more detail about the early hours of the blaze. He said military firefighters attacked the flames when they covered little ground.

"We believed it was out," Tarbet said. But gusting winds fueled a flare-up that the soldiers struggled to contain.

"Our mission is to support our citizens, not to endanger them," Tarbet added.  "And we failed in that yesterday."

More than 120 National Guard soldiers were activated to assist police and firefighters, and National Guard helicopters were used to drop water on the fire.

The night sky at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley was glowing with flames Monday night. Sheriff's deputies went door to door to get people out and to safety, sometimes staying just ahead of the fire.

"It's obviously a stunning event," said Peter Corroon, mayor of Salt Lake County. "The fire came quickly, and the winds magnified the fire."

The American Red Cross set up an evacuation center at a local high school.

Many people in the rural area have horses, goats, llamas and other animals. Animal-control officers mounted a rescue effort, and close to 100 horses were taken to an equestrian evacuation center.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert toured the area by helicopter shortly after dawn Monday. "It's a miracle," he said, noting he expected the destruction of 25 to 100 homes. "The flames have been suppressed in a significant fashion."

"We're not out of the woods yet," warned Michael Jensen, chief of the Unified Fire Authority. "Fire behavior tampered down in the early morning hours, but we're concerned it may flare up as temperatures rise and winds return."

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