High winds, temps keeping 270 firefighters busy after prescribed burn.
The most dangerous wildfire burning in Utah was started by the U.S. Forest Service in mid-May to protect homes.
Instead, about 25 homes in Sevier and Piute counties have been evacuated and a crew of wildland firefighters are camping beside them in case the flames from the Box Creek Fire approach. The fire was estimated to have cost $700,000 and rising going into this weekend.
Firefighting went well on Friday and crews hoped for significant progress Saturday, said Jason Kling, the district ranger for the Richfield Ranger District on the Fishlake National Forest. While winds blew steady from the southwest to northeast, firefighters on the ground and helicopters and airplanes dousing the blaze with water were able to prevent any significant expansion of the fire.
But strong winds were expected to return and temperatures to be high again by mid-day Saturday. The Box Creek Fire is estimated to have burned about 2,300 acres. There is no estimate for when the fire will be contained.
The Box Creek Fire began in mid-May. The Forest Service wanted to reduce the number of conifer trees and brush in an area that includes the seasonal homes as well as Box Creek Reservoir and the Piute ATV trail, Kling said. The fear was those trees and brush would be fuel for an uncontrolled fire.
So a crew from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management ignited about 200 acres. Kling said the prescribed burn was "a success." So on May 29, the crew ignited another 650 acres.
That burn also appeared successful, Kling said. Firefighters camped overnight to monitor the fire, but the number of personnel gradually was reduced as the fire dissipated, Kling said.
A few firefighters remained on hand Monday, Kling said. That's when winds gusted and an ember "blew across the meadow into some thick fuel," Kling said.
Kling said the firefighters didn't see any signs of trouble until the untreated area began burning. More firefighters were immediately dispatched to the area, but they couldn't contain the spread.
"We were comfortable. We thought we were OK," Kling said of the situation that existed until Monday afternoon. "It was almost a week later since we initially lit."
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Kling said the good news is the Box Creek Fire is burning now rather than in July when fire conditions across the state are expected to be worse.
Still, Kling acknowledged the evacuated homeowners are upset.
"They have a right to be," Kling said.
About 270 firefighters and at least a half dozen aircraft fought the Box Creek Fire on Friday.
Sevier County Commissioner Gordon Topham said while the Box Creek Fire is mostly burning conifers and aspen, there is some grazing rangeland for livestock being destroyed for the season.
"Everyone usually gets upset when we have a fire, but in the end result we get awfully good rangeland," Topham said. "It's good health for the forest."
Elsewhere in Utah, crews launched an all-out effort Friday to hem in several Utah wildfires, racing against the arrival of high winds this weekend that prompted a "Red Flag" fire danger warning covering most of the state.
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