- Associated Press - Monday, September 20, 2010

HERRIMAN, Utah (AP) — A wind-stoked wildfire sparked at a firing range during a National Guard training session blazed across thousands of acres Monday as crews rushed to keep it from burning more than four homes that were destroyed overnight.

The fire moved back on itself Monday as the Utah National Guard acknowledged it wasn’t the first time that live-fire exercises had sparked a fire at Camp Williams, a sprawling compound 30 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Overnight conditions helped firefighters get a handle on the blaze by Monday morning and keep it from spreading, but authorities were trying to keep the evacuated area clear of people as a precaution.

“If we get a change of winds, a pickup in winds, it’s game-on again,” Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said. “Right now we’re in a fairly static situation but it could turn on us again.”

Residents and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon were questioning the National Guard’s decision to fire weapons in dry and windy conditions Sunday, but Lt. Col. Hank McIntire said wind wasn’t a factor until after the fire took hold.

“There’s always the possibility that some ammunition will catch brush on fire. We felt like we had it extinguished yesterday, then some embers reignited in the wind and it got away from us,” Col. McIntire told the Associated Press on Monday. “That’s when the wind picked up and got it going again, and it rolled through Camp Williams.”

By early Monday, 1,652 homes had been evacuated, said fire information officer Jason Curry. Four houses were lost, said Steve Sautter, manager of Salt Lake County’s joint information center. Many others were threatened until winds shifted overnight.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kim Osborn said authorities got a better estimate on the damage by Monday afternoon and reduced it from 10,000 acres to about 3,500, or less than 6 square miles.

Five tanker planes were in the air, dropping suppressant and trying to get as much of the fire under control before Tuesday, when winds were expected to increase, she said.

“We’re doing all that we can to keep everybody safe,” Ms. Osborn said. “It’s looking good now.”

Sheriff Winder said he didn’t expect any more evacuations as firefighters continued to get the fire under control Monday.

All four homeowners whose property was destroyed had been notified, he said.

“If you haven’t been told that your house has burned down, your house hasn’t burned down,” Sheriff Winder said. “What we’re doing our best to do here is to ensure that not only no other houses get burned and that nobody gets hurt. And then if the wind does change, we’ve already got people out. We don’t want a ton of people back in this evacuated area.”

Herriman is rural community on the southwest side of the Salt Lake Valley. It’s flanked to the south and west by mountains. North and west are the valley’s suburban communities, with a combined population of about a million.

Col. McIntire told the AP that dry brush had caught fire during artillery training on a machine gun range, and soldiers did not have the manpower or equipment to stop it from rapidly spreading.

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