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Parleys Canyon Fire Forces Up To 8,000 Homes To Be Evacuated

Mountains are covered in billowing smoke as a helicopter flies against a blue sky.
Sonja Hutson
A helicopter drops water on the Parleys Canyon Fire about 4 hours after it started.

Noelle Skilton is a retired firefighter, but instead of battling a blaze Saturday afternoon, she was packing up her most important belongings to flee one.

“It's just sad,” she said. Skilton lives in Timberline, a small community that was under an evacuation warning. “It's tragic. I hope that we get through it without anybody losing their house.”

Some of Skilton’s neighbors were out of town and she told them about the fire right away.

“We could see it before anybody told us,” she said. “We just had this text message chain going. We still literally do have a bunch of people out of town. So we move vehicles. We’re corralling animals best that we can do … We're all getting into everybody else's houses and getting into their safes and pulling all their stuff out for them.”

A woman carries equipment to a white vehicle with an open hatch.
Sonja Hutson
Noelle Skilton loads up her car to evacuate her home in Timberline.

The Parleys Canyon Fire started Saturday afternoon on the side of I-80 near the Lamb’s Canyon exit and spread quickly uphill toward several communities. Officials ordered evacuations in Summit Park, Pine Brook, Lambs Canyon & Millcreek, which make up between 6,000 to 8,000 homes.

Sunday afternoon, Utah Wildfire Info said the fire was accurately mapped at 619 acres, much lower than earlier estimates. There is no known structure loss.

Officials determined the fire was caused by a malfunctioning catalytic converter, which spewed hot particles onto brush just off the freeway.

The drought, hot weather and wind were a perfect storm for that to turn into a wildfire.

“We are in exceptional drought still in Salt Lake County, so our fuels are dried out,” said Brian Trick, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “We did have that rainstorm, but again, we've been watching … the energy release component levels for our fuels, and they're in the extreme level. And so it's no surprise, really, that we did have the fire behavior that we have.”

Large airplanes dropped red fire retardant, helicopters dropped water and firefighters went into the burn area on foot to try to get the fire under control.

As of 7 p.m. Saturday, fire officials said that the fire’s spread had slowed a bit, but “it will take some time before the hand crews see success holding the fire line.”

Utah Highway Patrol briefly closed all lanes of I-80 due to the fire. Soon after, firefighters were able to get the blaze under better control and UHP opened one of the east-bound lanes. That caused bumper to bumper traffic for more than a mile leading up to the lane closure.

Although most of the evacuated homes were on the opposite side of the hill from where the fire started, there are some cabins near where the fire started. One of them has been in Chris Christensen’s family for generations.

She sat in the passenger seat of her sister’s pickup truck on the side of the freeway watching firefighters battle the blaze.

“It is very emotional,” Christensen said. “This is an important place to our family. We gather here every Sunday, all cousins and siblings.”

Others gathered on the side of the road just to watch the blaze.

“It's really ironic seeing this climate change attraction, attracting people to idle their cars,” said Jonas Torgersen of Salt Lake City. “It's just so doomed.”

The widespread consensus of climate scientists is that climate change makes large, destructive wildfires more likely because of hotter temperatures and drier vegetation.

“There's those black trees over there and maybe this whole green area right here — it could be like that soon if this continues,” Torgersen said. “So it's sad and scary.”

 A young man with black hair in a white t-shirt stands in front of his car at an interstate exit. The highway and a large plume of smoke is in the background.
Sonja Hutson
Jonas Torgersen came up to I-80 from Salt Lake City to watch the Parleys Canyon Fire burn.

Updated: August 15, 2021 at 7:40 AM MDT
This story was updated with new information about the size of the Parleys Canyon Fire.
Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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