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Monday, Sept. 22, 2014

Fire near Rockport Reservoir nearly half contained

By McKenzie Romero, Deseret News

Published: Fri, July 25 6:20 p.m. MDT

 A plane drops retardant over Rockport Estates where evacuations have been ordered as fire threatens homes near Wanship, Friday, July 25, 2014, in Summit County,  Friday, July 25, 2014, in Sandy.

A plane drops retardant over Rockport Estates where evacuations have been ordered as fire threatens homes near Wanship, Friday, July 25, 2014, in Summit County, Friday, July 25, 2014, in Sandy.

(Tom Smart, Deseret News)

ROCKPORT, Summit County — Judy Cella breathed a sigh of relief as the smoke hanging over Rockport Reservoir began to wane.

By 8 p.m., the 120-acre fire burning near her cabin was 45 percent contained and crews were confident evacuations in the area would be lifted and state Route 32 reopened by midnight.

This wouldn't be a repeat of the devastating blaze that destroyed more than a dozen homes and sheds in her neighborhood and burned almost 2,000 acres last summer.

"It's wonderful," Cella said when she got the encouraging news. "We finally left when we felt like things started to be contained."

The blaze began when a yurt caught fire about 3 p.m. Friday and quickly spread to nearby brush, triggering evacuation warnings for more than 200 residences.

The yurt was destroyed and the cause of the fire remains under investigation, interagency spokesman Tyler Rowser said.

Summit County Sheriff's Capt. Justin Martinez said Friday afternoon the evacuation was optional for anyone over 18 years of age but was strongly encouraged. Officials knocked on as many as 225 doors Friday, warning residents of the danger.

"Anybody who chooses to stay, they have that right to stay bunkered into place, but we're really strongly encouraging people to evacuate because, at this point, if the fire shifts, we can't go back up there and rescue them," Martinez said. "The fire can shift at a moment's notice with the wind and the weather."

About 80 percent of the area had voluntarily evacuated, Martinez estimated.

Cella said her heart dropped when she heard that, once again, flames were dangerously close to her Rockport cabin. She and her husband, Ron Cella, drove from their Centerville home to an LDS meetinghouse in Wanship, which was made available as an evacuation center Friday. The church remained mostly empty Friday evening.

"Once again we're up here, evacuated and nervous," Judy Cella said, watching aircraft circling through thick plumes of smoke in the distance. "I don't know if we can keep doing this every year. … Last year it scared us to death."

The Cellas weren't allowed to go to their cabin, which sits about two blocks away from the burned yurt. They plan to return first thing Saturday morning to check for smoke damage and for the reassurance of seeing first-hand that the "haven" they built for themselves in 2001 is still standing.

Following last year's fire, the couple considered selling their cabin but say their love for the peaceful summer getaway has kept them from listing it. A second blaze just one year later might change their minds.

"It's getting old," Ron Cella said, standing near his wife.

Judy Cella recalls returning to her cabin after the fire was contained last summer. The fire line came within 6 inches of her shed, and evidence of firefighters' hard-fought battle was all around her home.

"We were able to see firefighters' footmarks all around the cabin," Judy Cella said. "They literally saved our home. … It came really close."

Just down the street, other neighbors weren't as lucky, she said. They returned and found their home "burned down to the foundation."

Officials responded aggressively Friday in light of last year's fire, Rowser said, gaining ground on controlling the fire in a matter of hours as the winds died down. Planes and a helicopters were dropping retardant on the flames, as bulldozers worked to dig a fire line, he said.

"This fire is not as rough as last year was," Rowser said. "As we can tell, the wind has died down significantly from when the fire first started.

County officials had signed an emergency declaration by 5 p.m. Friday, asking the state for money and resources to fight the fire. Those added resources were already on-hand Friday night.

No structures were immediately threatened as the wind continued to blow to the south Friday, and no injuries had been reported, Rowser said. The fire had moved east, away from the Promontory subdivision that was damaged last year.

As the Cellas waited in Centerville, their primary concern was the wind.

"The thing that makes us nervous still is that someone told us that the winds change direction at night," Judy Cella said. "You never know what the winds are going to do."

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com, Twitter: McKenzieRomero

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