Military gun training led to Utah wildfire

HERRIMAN, Utah — The commander of the Utah Army National Guard took responsibility Monday for a fast-moving wildfire that led to the evacuation of 1,600 homes.

Gen. Brian Tarbet said Guard officials erred when they allowed live-fire training despite high-wind warnings.

Tarbet said he was "deeply sorry" about what he called a "systematic failure" at Camp Williams, about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City. The flames also destroyed three houses and damaged a fourth.

"Our mission is to support our citizens, not to endanger them, and we failed in that yesterday," Tarbet said.

Tarbet said no one checked to see if the National Weather Service had posted a "red flag" high-wind warning before permitting the machine gun exercise to proceed in tinder-dry conditions. He also said guard commanders waited two hours to call outside fire agencies for help.

It was only the latest example of military training activities sparking large fires at Camp Williams and other facilities.

Utah National Guard officials say they can usually contain any flames, but local leaders questioned the decision to fire weapons at all.

"It's a regular occurrence with any type of training — small flare-ups we deal with," Lt. Col. Hank McIntire said Monday as the fire retreated to the interior of the 44-square-mile camp.

The flames were ignited Sunday by practice rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun. National Guard crews thought they had the blaze quickly contained, until overnight winds of more than 40 mph fanned the fire across more than 6 square miles.

"People are upset, and I don't blame them," Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said Monday. "They're getting chased out of their house in the middle of night."

The National Guard pitched in to fight the flames, deploying 120 soldiers, as well as seven bulldozers and three Black Hawk helicopters.

When the began, the National Guard said the fire hazard was moderate. There was little wind, temperatures were below 75 degrees and humidity was 13 percent, typical for Utah's dry climate.

"Our fire crews were on standby, responded and corralled the fire. They got it under control, but the winds came up, and the fire spread and got beyond what we could handle ourselves," McIntire said.