Evacuees describe panic caused by Cottonwood Trail fire, now 50% contained

Utah Wildfires

UPDATE: 9:00 P.M Fire crews continue to battle the fast-moving Cottonwood Trail fire in Southern Utah. The fire is currently mapped is nearly 1,650 acres and is 50% contained. Harrisburg Area, Angel Heights sub-division (west side of Leeds) have been allowed to return home after being evacuated. Fire managers are maintaining the fire line with crews and aerial resources to the keep the fire with the burned footprint.

LEEDS, Utah (ABC4 News) – The Cottonwood Trail fire, the fourth major wildfire in Southern Utah in less than a week, has now burned more than 1600 acres and is 35% contained, officials say.

The fire ignited at approximately 3:00 p.m. Sunday as 20 mile per hour winds fanned the flames. Fire authorities estimated the blaze, which they believe ignited from a blown tire along I-15, had grown to 3,000 acres within a few hours after the initial spark. The current decrease in acreage can be attributed to more accurate mapping.

All evacuations in the towns of Leeds, Harrisburg, and the Silver Reef area were lifted Monday morning. Officials said only local traffic is allowed in the Angel Heights area. Travelers are asked to drive with caution near the fire for firefighter safety as crews continue to work along the freeway.

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Local residents tell ABC4 News they’re still recovering from an “emotional experience.”

“There was really just nowhere to go,” Harrisburg evacuee Steve Anderson said. “I couldn’t believe how fast, even a grass fire, could move. It just blew right across the interstate in a heartbeat.”

Dozens of cars were stranded on the freeway as some witnesses panicked, driving off the road or ditching their cars and running, one witness said.

“We didn’t expect it to be so close to us so fast. We luckily made it through without any injuries or any damage to the vehicle,” Las Vegas resident Aly Winder told KDXU. “One lady with her four year old was running up a hill next to us trying to escape.”

One firefighter was hospitalized after he suffered smoke inhalation, but has since been released and is recovering, officials said.

Leeds Mayor Wayne Peterson tells ABC4 News his home was among those evacuated.

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“The thing I was most concerned about is the calls from residents who had situations like recent surgeries and making sure we could get those people safely out,” Peterson said.

The mayor said the communities came together successfully to keep each other safe. The majority did follow authorities’ evacuation orders, but some had not, he said.

“Evacuation orders are given even though there’s a low probability that your personal safety will be threatened and your personal property damaged,” Peterson said. “But there is a chance there will be, and it’s so important for people to respond to that so firefighters can focus their efforts on fighting the fire knowing human life is safe.”

Katie Karalis
Katie worked as a multimedia journalist in Reno, Nevada for KRNV News 4 and in Quincy, Illinois for WGEM-TV before making the move to Utah. Katie graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she anchored and reported for the Emmy-award-winning Northwestern News Network.
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