Firefighters battling Millville Fire struggle with tough terrain

Posted at 8:56 PM, Aug 12, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-16 12:02:14-04

CACHE COUNTY -- From Monday through Wednesday, the Millville fire wasn't just scaring owners of cabins in the Blacksmith Fork Canyon, it was scaring firefighters.

Officials said as of Friday morning the fire had burned 2,800 acres and was 30 percent contained.

Scott Bushman is a fire management officer and 30-year veteran of wildland firefighting, and he said the fire presented new challenges.

"Thirty years of experience I've never seen fire behave like this," he said. "This is beyond my experience."

Riley Pilgrim, Fire Operations Section Chief, said the terrain was problematic.

"This is probably some of the most difficult stuff we encounter as wildland firefighters," he said.  "A lot of cliffed out terrain, a lot of steep hills and difficult access and difficult egress getting out of there."

The unusual thing about the fire: usually steep terrain ends in a ridge, and the ridge operates as a natural break, but Bushman said this fire jumped the ridges, and always found dry fuel where it landed.

That behavior forced some crews to pick up their equipment and abandon their lines to run to safe zones.

But on Thursday, two things changed: the winds and the air attack resources.

Three helicopters, including a heavy lift flying crane, dumped water through the dry vegetation, and a tanker plane flew in and out, striping the hills with red retardant...creating some breathing room for communities in the Cache Valley and cabin owners in the canyon.

Still, those cabin owners remain evacuated for the time being. Many were frightened the fire might gobble up long-standing family structures.

Robert Whitaker is retired from his contracting business. He spends three or four days a week in the canyon, at the cabin built by his father.

"We remodeled it 2 years ago and put about $100,000 into it and it's just a family heirloom," Whitaker said.

Up the canyon further sits a cabin built by Linda Elder's grandfather--one of the first men to open up the land around the now-popular Hardware Ranch area.

"It was just always a part of my life going up to that cabin, and now it's like I hope it'll be there when this thing's all over with," Elder said.

170 firefighters worked the mountain Thursday, many of them spending short nights sleeping in tents at the Millville City Park.

One of those firefighters came off the mountain fitted with a temporary sling, on his way to more medical attention after dislocating his shoulder on the steep hills.

Residents at a public meeting at Heritage Elementary School in Nibley heard the optimistic news and clapped when one woman spoke up in the question and answer period.

"I don't have a question. I just want you to tell all the firefighters how grateful we are," she said.