Across campus, BYU students walked through smoky air cast from fires burning in Southern Utah County on Sept. 14. The Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires currently covering over 68,000 acres were ignited by lightning and as of now, are separate blazes. However, according to the Daily Herald, the two are separated by only three miles and the Nebo Loop Road.
According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Bald Mountain Fire was ignited on Aug. 24 and the Pole Creek Fire several weeks later on Sept. 6.
“This fire hasn’t been too bad with smoke, it’s just always there. It’s in all the buildings and it’s annoying,” Mikell Abernethy, a BYU junior from Boston said. “You can’t go inside without the smoke following.”
On Sept. 13, fire departments from Draper, West Valley and Unified Fire Authority each sent a four-person crew accompanied by an engine to help the efforts, according to KSL.
The two blazes forced the closure of several Utah County roads and canyons on Sept. 13, KSL reported, and a mandatory evacuation order was made to Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and Covered Bridge Canyon in Spanish Fork. As of Sept. 14, there have been no reports of destroyed structures.
Parts of Spanish Fork, Payson and Salem are under pre-evacuation advisories. Nebo School District is not allowing children out during recess because of the poor air quality. Salem Hills High School is still open, but the school is also being used as a Red Cross command center, according to the Daily Herald.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox arrived at the scene of the Pole Creek Fire the morning of Sept. 13, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. He tweeted on that night that the fires are merging.
“This is a true emergency. Please heed all evacuation warnings. Do not take any chances,” he wrote.
In another tweet he wrote that his main goal is to protect human life.
“We can rebuild structure but not people. Please heed evacuations and don’t put our firefighters at risk,” Cox wrote.
Cox also took to Twitter to express his displeasure with how the Forest Service handled the fire. According to Cox, it was the Forest Service who decided to manage the fire by letting it burn rather than snuffing it out.
More inept decision-making by the Forest Service who decided to try and “manage” this fire and let it burn instead of suppression—during one of the worst droughts in recent history. Now raging out of control, homes are threatened and Highway 89 is closed. https://t.co/L5PI11kQOS
— Spencer Cox (@SpencerJCox) September 13, 2018
During a Sept. 14 morning information session catered to the citizens of Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge, Mitt Romney praised the efforts of firefighters and residents. Like Cox, he also shared his displeasure with the Forest Service.
“It is my experience that this is inexcusable in my view. These fires will keep happening. We have to do our part to make sure we have more resources and to make sure these don’t keep happening,” he said.
As of today, US Highway 6 is back open but could close again if smoke begins to obstruct road visibility, according to Bald Mountain fire management spokesperson Suzie Tenhagen in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Tenhagen said there are around 300 firefighters already on the scene, but more are expected to arrive throughout the day. Air support is anticipated to drop water and flame retardant to help with the efforts.
Tenhagan told the Tribune that prior to the last couple of days, Utah Forest Services were letting the two fires burn to help the environment. She said the forest managers didn’t anticipate high winds, warm nighttime temperatures and low humidity levels, which caused The Pole Creek fire to spiral out of control.
The Daily Herald said officials from the U.S Forest Service are preparing for the two fires to merge as of the morning on Sept. 14.
Utah Department of Environmental Quality wrote on Twitter that the fire will affect air quality in the southern end of Utah County with smoke pollution levels reaching “unhealthy” levels.
They advised residents to plan to limit outdoor exertion, noting that children, the elderly and those with existing heart and lung conditions will have the hardest time.
Utah County Sheriff’s Department is encouraging people to stay away from southern Utah County. Distance is the biggest source of help residents of nearby cities can offer, according to officials.
According to the Daily Herald, the Red Cross is accepting donations of prepackaged, non-perishable food which can be sent to Salem Hills High School.