Brush fire threatens homes in Bluff
by Zak Podmore . Just after sunset on July 12, Jackie Warren was at her home near Cottonwood Wash in Bluff. A storm system was moving in from the west and a few cracks of thunder rolled down the canyon. She was growing concerned about her horses when a lightning bolt struck directly in the wash.
“We saw the strike,” another Bluff resident wrote on Facebook. “It blinded us, then [the brush] exploded into flames.”
Within minutes, 40-foot tall flames were leaping out of the dry tamarisk lining the wash, according to former Bluff fire chief Jim Hook, who served as incident commander.
“It was wild how quickly it ignited,” Hook said. “For a minute, I thought the wind coming down the canyon would push it to the bridge,” referring to where Highway 191 crosses Cottonwood Wash south of the strike.
Sirens went off at the volunteer fire department, and flames were licking the base of several large power lines by the time ten Bluff residents showed up to fight the blaze.
The crew hooked a hose up to the nearest fire hydrant and it sputtered out only a cough of dry air.
“We had a fire hydrant fail to function,” Hook said, “but thankfully we had a backup water supply to protect structures.”
Three fire engines arrived from Montezuma Creek. The wind shifted away from the power lines and the blaze slowed. It rained a few drops, but Hook says the humidity might have helped as well.
More firefighters continued to arrive until 25 people were on scene. Several homes were evacuated. San Juan County dispatched a tanker from Monticello and Blanding Fire sent an engine. A semi-truck with a front-end loader was also provided by the county to help cut a line through the dense brush.
A crew from Syracuse, UT, dispatched to the area as part of a federal fire severity program, pitched in.
“The response was awesome,” Hook said, noting that he is proud the Bluff volunteer efforts and the help from other communities. “We had over 12,000 gallons of water on hand.”
Warren, who ran dispatch, said, “We had a great turnout and everybody knew their positions. New additions to the fire department were great and recent trainings were obvious.”
Within an hour, the 1.2-acre blaze was mostly contained and crews worked late into the night to extinguish it completely.
Three homes and the power lines were threatened but all were spared.
A significant rain storm brought .88 inch of rain Saturday. The single storm brought more water than Bluff received for the the entire water year that began October 1, 2017.
Hook hopes the lightning strike will serve as a wake up call to property owners. “There’s a lot of work to be done to clean up fuel around houses, like tumbleweeds,” he said.
Warren agreed and is also requesting a thorough inspection of the town’s fire hydrants. “It’s fire season,” she said, “we need to be ready.”