Church Fork Fire 80 percent contained, evacuated residents allowed to return home

Posted at 7:09 AM, Sep 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-13 17:37:36-04

MILLCREEK, Utah -- The voluntary evacuations called for in response to a fire believed to be arson in Millcreek Canyon  Saturday have been lifted Saturday night, and despite drone activity that grounded air resources fighting the fire for a time, the blaze is now 80 percent contained.

james gillPolice stated Saturday afternoon 35-year-old James O. Gill was booked on an arson charge, and the man allegedly sparked the blaze during an interaction with police in which he took off his shirt, lit it on fire and threw it into the underbrush.

The Church Fork Fire, which started  just after 11 p.m. Friday right above Johnson’s campground, grew to five acres Saturday, and Forest Service officials at Uinta-Wasatch Cache National Forest stated around 7 p.m. Saturday the evacuations had been lifted and all residents could return home.

As of Sunday, the fire was 80 percent contained.

Officials stated earlier Saturday afternoon that a drone spotted in the area had led to the grounding of air resources fighting the flames.

"It's really dangerous if you have a drone up in the air," said Kim Osborn of the U.S. Forest Service. "We have helicopters flying low, or a tanker coming in low, they can't see that it's a small object, it can kill someone if it creates a collision in the air then we have firefighters on the ground."

Osborn said the delays caused and dangers posed by drones are not to be taken lightly.

"People need to understand if they fly those drones: We can't fly our air resources, and it halts everything down, it's a very serious thing," Osborn said.

Police said Gill is believed to be homeless and living in the canyon, and they said he suffers from mental health conditions. Police were making a welfare check on the man in the canyon, which is when the fire began.

"At some point in time, the gentleman broke free of the officers, actually removed his shirt, lit it on fire, and threw it into the underbrush," Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said.

Three Hot shot crews, from Utah, Idaho and Alaska, are on the ground, working to set up a perimeter to contain the flames.

"Right now they've been doing a lot of good work up there," Osborn said. "It's pretty rocky and steep, so that's always a factor in making things a little more difficult."

UFA officials say residents of Mountain Aire subdivision were about a mile away from the fire. No structures were threatened, but officials had asked residents to evacuate as a precaution in case the wind changed. At least 30 homes were affected.

Mill Creek Canyon was closed, as were the Pipeline, Elbow Fork, and Big Water Trails, according to Forest Service officials at UWCNF. The trail leading from Lambs Canyon into Mill Creek Canyon was also closed.

Tune in to FOX 13 News at Nine Saturday for the latest updates on the fire.