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Deputy rescues two people who drove around road block; started wildfire

Posted at 7:59 PM, Jul 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-15 21:59:07-04

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Utah — While the Knolls Fire was continuing to force evacuations of Saratoga Springs residents after the sun went down on June 28, a new wildfire sparked around 9 p.m. nearby, along SR-68.

The roadway was closed to thru traffic at the time, but a new fire that burned 388 acres erupted along Redwood Road near mile marker 17.

Utah County Sheriff’s Office Deputy John Thomas was watching the south end of the Knolls Fire when we noticed another flare up nearby.

“Can you confirm with fire if they have people just south of the Knolls that just started another fire?” Deputy Thomas called out on his radio to dispatch. “We just had a large flare up down here with a couple of individuals running away.”

Deputy Thomas drove toward a man and a woman who were seen running away from a field between Utah Lake and SR-68.

“They’re just running south through the private property area,” he called out over his radio. Deputy Thomas drove beside the flames, off-road and intercepted the two as they were trying to outrun the flames.

“The one female, the adult female was pretty burnt,” Deputy Thomas told Fox13 on Wednesday. “Severe burns everywhere, face, hair, arms, legs.” After taking the two in his patrol car to a safe location away from the flames, LifeFlight flew through the tough conditions to take the female to a local hospital. She suffered from numerous severe burns. “With the fire kind of barreling down on us, to come in that close is really amazing to see all the firefighters and everybody there trying to help these guys.”

The story of how the two got into a "closed" area unfolded from there. A 21-year-old man drove his truck around a road block. He and his passenger then cut through a fence and drove off-road along Redwood Road. The truck was driven into a ravine and got stuck. That’s when the vehicle started leaking gas and caught fire.

“There’s a vehicle involved and totally engulfed,” Deputy Thomas can be heard saying on dispatch archives from that night. “Somebody up there on the road wants to let the fire know that there’s a car down there that started the fire.”

The fire burned nearly 400 acres, with 100 of it on the Smith Family Preserve, an area along Utah Lake with over 200 rock art petroglyphs.

According to Randy Griffin, the manager at the Preserve, almost all of the vegetation around the petroglyphs burned. He and his team are working to check on the nearly 240 pieces of rock art that were close to the flames from this human-caused fire.

On Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Thomas was honored with an award from the Utah County Sheriff’s Office for his life-saving, quick actions.

“It does mean a lot, I know they’re all looking at me as doing something great, I look at it as I wish this award was put out to more people,” Deputy Thomas said about all of the men and women who helped with the operation. “I don’t feel like my actions were any different than anybody else’s actions but I do really appreciate it and it does mean a lot to me.”

Deputy Thomas admitted that it isn’t uncommon for people to avoid signage and ignore road blocks, especially when it comes to wildfires. “We do it for the safety of not just us but also for the citizens,” he said.

The man sustained no injuries but the woman is still hospitalized. The man is being charged with criminal mischief and trespass.

“Ultimately, nobody else saw these guys running, yeah they could have ran and ran and ran, the fire would have eventually caught up to them,” said Deputy Thomas.

To learn more about the Smith Family Preserve: https://www.facebook.com/smith.family.archaeological.preserve/