Park City fire evacuees arrive at Red Cross center, telling of harrowing escapes from blaze |

Park City fire evacuees arrive at Red Cross center, telling of harrowing escapes from blaze

High school gymnasium offers food, shelter as people flee the disaster in the Basin

The American Red Cross set up an evacuation center in the gymnasium at Park City High School as a wildfire tore through Parleythe western edge of Summit County last weekend. Cots and blankets were among the relief items brought to the high school.
Jay Hamburger/Park Record

Rita Baden, a Summit Park resident, on Sunday afternoon is in the Park City High School gymnasium, on the basketball hardwood and with just a few other people in the cavernous room.

The conversations of others, from a distance, are muffled. There are some youngsters, and their parents, around. There are tables and tables of foodstuffs lining a wall. Baden has set up near another wall of the gymnasium. A cot with a pillow and a blanket emblazoned with the logo of the American Red Cross is where she is spending much of the time.

Baden is one of the people who live toward the western border of Summit County and were ordered to evacuate the high-altitude, heavily wooded neighborhood as a devastating wildfire approached.

The Parleys Canyon Fire, named for its proximity to the canyon close to the Summit County-Salt Lake County line, has by Sunday afternoon become one of the most devastating to affect Summit County in years. And, in a stark contrast, many of the largest wildfires in the Park City area in the past tore through unpopulated or sparsely populated land while the Parleys Canyon Fire on Sunday threatens neighborhoods that are beloved for their views, the wildlife and, in some cases, their distinct sense of mountain living.

The Summit County Sheriff’s Office ordered a mandatory evacuation on Saturday afternoon in Summit Park, Pinebrook and Timberline, all neighborhoods close to Interstate 80. It was expected the order would impact thousands of people, forcing them to seek shelter. It is believed many left to stay with family or friends elsewhere in Utah.

Some, though, arrived Saturday at the high school with just the essentials. Baden first went to Ecker Hill Middle School for shelter and was then directed to the high school, where the Red Cross evacuation center is located. Law enforcement drove her from one school to the other. A giant plume of smoke rising in the west was seen from the grounds of the high school, turning the sunset into hues of spectacular, but ominous, colors.

Baden was the only person to sleep at the gymnasium on Saturday night. The Red Cross evacuation center remained at the high school, but others who sought temporary shelter left by the overnight hours.

“It was a nervous sleep,” Baden says the next day, adding, “For me, it’s not sleeping soundly.”

One of her cats — rescued by a firefighter from the house — is in a crate on the floor nearby. The other cat remains at the house, unable to be found as she left. The cat in the crate ran away to explore the gymnasium several times before returning to the area Baden has staked out. The gymnasium lights remain illuminated at all times, making the nighttime even more difficult for someone hoping to sleep. A vegetarian, Baden consumed goldfish crackers, cashews and bread even as platters of donated food arrived.

The American Red Cross provided cots and bedding at an evacuation center at the Park City High School gymnasium. Between 30 and 35 people arrived at the location early in the evacuation from a wildfire.
Jay Hamburger/Park Record

“I, obviously, was really alone,” she says. “I’m the only person that stayed overnight.”

An eerie feeling

A terrible wildfire or a major earthquake are considered to be the worst natural disasters the Park City area would suffer. Emergency officials have for years prepared for eventualities like those, drafting plans for the response, training staffers at various levels of government and holding tabletop exercises.

There are neighborhoods inside the Park City limits, places like Old Town and Deer Valley, that are seen as especially vulnerable to a wildfire, but when one is spreading outside of the Park City limits, like the Parleys Canyon Fire, there is cooperation between the various agencies and governmental bodies as the plans are sprung. The Red Cross location at the high school is one part of the overall disaster plan.

The scene at the gymnasium at the high school never becomes frenetic as people trickle in. Early in the evacuation, between 30 and 35 people arrive at the Red Cross location. They are checked in by Red Cross workers at a table near the front of the school. Other Red Cross workers, wearing red vests identifying themselves as a member of a disaster-relief team, greet the people as well. Six campers and several cars, each with several people inside, spend the night in the parking lot, but they do not require the same resources as if they were inside the gymnasium. The Red Cross is prepared for many more people than actually arrive at the high school.

The foodstuffs are brought into the gymnasium at a regular clip. Some of the items are part of any disaster relief. There are crates with jars of peanut butter and cans of soup still wrapped in plastic. Bags of trail mix, Luna bars, bagels, individual applesauce containers and oranges are some of the options on the table. Nearby, apples, Gatorade, bottled water and snacks are in a large tub of ice. Boxes of Domino’s pizza are stacked on the table. Jimmy John’s sandwiches are also available. There is far more food and drink than will be consumed.

Park City Councilor Max Doilney greets the people manning the American Red Cross evacuation center at the Park City High School on Sunday afternoon. Doilney, an alum of the school, is one of several elected officials to visit the evacuation center.
Jay Hamburger/Park Record

At midday Sunday, with the skies still smoky, Mayor Andy Beerman and two members of the Park City Council stop at the high school to observe and offer their support, and to talk to the people staying at the gymnasium and the people manning the room. Max Doilney, a city councilor, is a Park City High School alum and one of the elected officials to visit.

“It feels pretty eerie,” he says, describing the fire and the setup at the high school as a “continuation of the surreal year, or two years” in a reference to the community’s struggles with the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Doilney says he told Baden of his “supreme amount of confidence” in the firefighters.

“I would hate for her to sit here and think nobody is out there trying to save her house,” he says.

The mayor arrives at the high school shortly after 2 p.m. to express gratitude to the Red Cross representatives. Nann Worel, a city councilor who is competing with Beerman in a mayoral election this year, also makes a stop at the high school.

“I just said thank you,” the mayor says. “None of them live up here. … We’re grateful.”

Beerman adds that the people of Park City were rallying “behind those in need.”

“The generosity of the community continues,” he says.

‘You grab the essentials’

Mark and Linda Ridderhoff, Pinebrook residents, are at the high school’s gymnasium on Saturday after watching the smoke rise in the neighborhood earlier in the day. Their dog and cat are accompanying them. The Ridderhoffs saw the smoke rising near the neighborhood in the afternoon and understood the situation was serious.

“I could see it was getting closer and closer. I thought this is looking bad,” Mark Ridderhoff says, adding, “We’ve got to pack up as fast as we can.”

They spent an hour and 15 minutes gathering belongings, filling three or four suitcases with valuables and computers. They also packed dog treats and cat food for their pets, and medicines for themselves. He also brought a Bill Gates book, entitled “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”

The Ridderhoffs are confident as they are at the high school. They say they keep a positive outlook no matter the situation.

“We could last a week on our own,” he says.

There were plenty of foodstuffs and drinks at the American Red Cross evacuation center at the Park City High School gymnasium. Some of the options included peanut butter, soup, trail mix and bagels. There was far more food and drink available than will be consumed.
Jay Hamburger/Park Record

While they are at the high school, someone approaches them asking if they have a place to stay. They do not as the evacuation in the neighborhood continues. Temporary quarters in Spring Creek, a neighborhood near Kimball Junction, are offered. The Ridderhoffs leave the high school Saturday evening and remain in the temporary housing on Tuesday morning.

At the beginning of the workweek, the fire continued to spread. Officials in Summit County are some of the key figures organizing the local-government response. The County Courthouse on Monday night posted information online indicating the Red Cross location at the high school will remain open for what officials described as the “duration” of the fire. The posting said the location is open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Anyone needing to stay overnight should arrive prior to 8 p.m., the posting said. Anyone whose need for accommodations arises after 8 p.m. is directed to call the Red Cross at 1-800-733-2767.

Summit County officials on Monday also issued a declaration of local emergency, calling the blaze a “fast-moving wild fire” that “swept up Parley’s Canyon” from Lambs Canyon. By the time of the declaration, the fire had charred an estimated 619 acres. The declaration said up to 2,100 structures were within the evacuation zone. County Manager Tom Fisher in the declaration consented to the extension of the evacuation order for Pinebrook, Summit Park and Timberline. The order said the county manager would consult with Sheriff Justin Martinez regarding additional extensions or alterations to the evacuations. The declaration also involved the activation of the Summit County Emergency Operations Center.

As the emergency responders and the government leaders ready for what they anticipate will be crucial days of firefighting, assisted by a forecast of cooler temperatures and rain, the scene at the high school remains an indelible image even during a dramatic, highly visible natural disaster. A relief effort as broad as the one at the high school is believed to be unlike any other inside the Park City limits since at least the middle of the 1990s.

On Saturday, Grant Pettinotti reaches the gymnasium with his wife and daughter, having been ordered out of Summit Park. He has similar stories of rushing to leave his house as the fire spread. They grabbed clothes and work items, and brought their dog and cat with them. The Pettinottis are able to quickly find a place to stay, at a friend’s house, and leave the high school soon after arriving.

“It was directly over the hill from us. Winds were blowing in our direction,” he says about the evacuation. “You grab the essentials.”

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