Fire burns 80 acres in Echo |

Fire burns 80 acres in Echo

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

A wildfire in Echo on Saturday nearly destroyed 81-year-old Russ Johnson’s house.

"It burned all around here. It started right down the road and went right past my gazebo all the way to the bottom of the canyon. The wind was blowing so hard that I had an American flag that was brand new that I had just put up. While I was gone, in just a few minutes, it ripped one of the grommets clear out of it and it was just hanging on one," said Johnson, who is a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. "Fire danger is high and anybody with common sense up there is not even going to light a barbecue in a wind like that."

He claimed he knows the man who started the blaze that Johnson reported Saturday afternoon.

"Damn right I know who set it," Johnson said, adding that the suspect was likely burning grass without a permit.

The fire forced the evacuation of many people from Echo Creek Ranches attending an annual community picnic in the rustic neighborhood south of Interstate 80 where Johnson has lived since 1980.

"The fire created hate and discontent and everybody, at least on the east end, got run off," Johnson said. "But there is nothing that we can do about Mother Nature."

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Firefighters wouldn’t say who started the blaze but a criminal investigation is underway, said Scott Bovey, a fire management officer with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

"This was a man-caused fire and it occurred under a red-flag warning," he said, adding that there were not lighting strikes, nor trains in the area that could have sparked the blaze. "They could potentially be fined for negligent burning."

Costs for fighting the 80-acre fire that threatened several homes at Echo Creek Ranches in North Summit could exceed $100,000, according to Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer.

"It’s contained and controlled," Boyer said on Monday. "We know how it started, but we’re not going to comment on it at this time."

But firefighters had contained only 50 percent of the blaze Sunday afternoon, Bovey explained.

"All of our fire lines have thus far held We had gusts over the fire of more than 30 mph," he said Sunday while standing amid charred grasses, sage and oak brush in a section of Echo Canyon known for red rock formations that are unusual in Northern Utah. "It hasn’t grown in size since last night."

Bovey explained how the blaze spared aspens and fir trees in the roughly 6,600 acre subdivision comprised of mini-ranches. There was a voluntary evacuation but most of the property owners were not home.

Flames were just 30 feet from some buildings, Boyer said.

"Depending on who you talk to it, was real intense," he said, adding that nobody was injured fighting the fire. "We didn’t lose any structures."

Starting June 1 citizens were required to have a permit before any burning was done on their property, Boyer said about the "closed fire season" that lasts until October.

"That is so that we don’t run into an issue where fires escape and become very costly and time consuming," he said, adding, though, that campfires can still be lit without a permit.

Meanwhile, the blaze in Echo was the 25th wildfire in Summit County since March, Boyer lamented.

"So far this is the largest," he said.

Because the wildfire season doesn’t officially begin until mid-summer, Boyer worries about running out of funding for fighting fires.

"Because of having structures threatened and outbuildings threatened, we did use aircraft, both a small air tanker and a helicopter," he said about the Echo blaze. "That dramatically increased the cost."

More fires could break the bank, he said, acknowledging that money from state coffers could help off-set costs if fires are extreme in 2007.

"It could be an, a-little-above-normal fire season in the area, a little more active than what we’ve seen in the past three years," Boyer said.

He admitted some people were upset that roads into Echo Creek Ranches were closed on Saturday.

"It was strictly a safety issue. We didn’t know what the fire was going to do," Boyer said, adding that homeowners returned Saturday evening. "We had a fairly high comfort level with what we had in place for protection and that it wasn’t going to get away."