District Ranger about escaped resource benefit fire: "We just felt helpless and sick"

The Mill Flat fire on the Dixie National Forest was a resource benefit fire that was managed for about 5 weeks before it burned into the community of New Harmony, Utah on August 29. The fire forced evacuations, destroyed three residences, and damaged another eight structures.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Salt Lake Tribune.

U.S. Forest Service administrator Bevan Killpack defends the choices made in fighting the Mill Flat fire in southern Utah this summer, but acknowledges that officials should have seen the fire growing quickly days before it reached New Harmony.

“We weren’t focusing on the acreage as much as where the fire was,” said Killpack, a Pine Valley District ranger who oversaw the benefit resource fire. “We were looking at 100 acres growing every day, but it was staying on the mountain.”

The resource benefit fire started small in July but began to consume 100 acres a day around Aug. 26, according to a fire behavior analyst who reviewed the forest service’s daily communications and papers in late September. The blaze was burning 40 acres or less a day prior to that, Killpack said.

“That should have told us something,” he said Thursday. “We should have realized 100 acres was substantial. That should have been a red flag and we missed it.”

An updated fire plan was put in place Aug. 26 and hand crews and engines were ordered to clear fuel breaks west of New Harmony “to hold the fire if it moves toward town,” according to U.S. State Department of Agriculture documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune .

Fire crews continued to herd the blaze, that was burning northeast, farther north. A helicopter also was brought in early to begin dropping water to slow the fire from spreading into Dam and Straight canyons. A hotshot crew from Logan was ordered to strengthen and extend fuel breaks.

On Aug. 27, A hotshot superintendent told a concerned homeowner that “there was no immediate threat,” the documents state.

But on Aug. 29, something nobody predicted happened.

Unexpectedly strong, cold winds dropped the blaze’s smoke column into the valley about 2 p.m. It was full of burning embers and jumped quickly over fire breaks to start new fires a mile or more down the hill in front of the original fire, Killpack said.

The blaze moved quickly as visibility was cut to near zero. Thick smoke forced fire crews in the air and on the ground to abandon their efforts. Embers flew into New Harmony.

“That’s why we had homes burn,” Killpack said. “We just felt helpless and sick.”

The 1,300-acre resource benefit blaze quickly grew into a 12,600-acre raging wildfire that forced the evacuation of 170 New Harmony residents, destroyed three homes and damaged eight buildings.

But Killpack said fire personnel had correctly monitored the resource benefit blaze by testing and measuring wind, temperatures, fuel moisture and other aspects of the blaze throughout July and August.

However, Killpack later admitted, “I was nervous with it the whole time.”

They made the best and most accurate decisions with the science they had available to them, he said.

“I was trying to protect the community and I ended up burning [it],” Killpack said. “It bit us, and dang it, I don’t want it ever to happen again.”

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2 thoughts on “District Ranger about escaped resource benefit fire: "We just felt helpless and sick"”

  1. Bevan has been supervising wildfires for 20 plus years and has an immaculate record when it comes to protecting residences on forest land. You would be hard pressed to find any other district ranger will as clean a record. There are consequences when people choose have their homes in hazardous fire prone areas. He is absolutely the best man in the business when it comes to wildfires. The mill flat fire was the exception to every wildfire rule there is. Obviously Will has limited experience when it comes to making crucial decisions in front of an unpredictable wildfire.

  2. Bevan Kilpack should be fired. RAWS stations showed the complete story with low fuel moisture and high temperatures the only thing missing was wind. Why was their no contingency plan developed for the escape of this fire? This is not his first experience with management fires escaping control and threatening homes and lives. The Hawkins Fire is a great example of this same principle. Fire Management in the color country area needs to be overhauled.


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