The night of the Herriman (Machine Gun) Fire

A lot of people have written up their thoughts and their experiences about going through the Herriman “Machine Gun” fire 19 September 2010. I’ve had some friends ask me to do the same. One friend asked me to specifically to highlight the preparedness aspect of our experience.

A lot of people have written up their thoughts and their experiences about going through the Herriman “Machine Gun” fire 19 September 2010. I’ve had some friends ask me to do the same. One friend asked me to specifically to highlight the preparedness aspect of our experience.

We’ve lived in the Herriman area for about seven years. During that time, we’ve seen a handful of fires on the hills south of us, usually ignited by lightning. These have usually been small fires and quickly contained by firefighters. So when we heard there was a fire burning in the hills Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t terribly shocking news.

When we came out of church after 4:00 p.m., the sky was considerably smoky to the point that the light from the sun had taken on an orange-ish hue. That was remarkable, but it still didn’t really concern any of us. We carried on with our plans just as most everyone did.

We had been invited to my parents’ in West Valley City for dinner. I decided to drive out there on the Bacchus Highway instead of using the usual route on Bangerter Highway. I wanted to see if the Bacchus route, with fewer stop lights, would be as fast, despite having to drive further to get to the artery.

I drove down 6000 West to 11800 South and then went west toward the Bacchus Highway. As we headed west, I looked south and was really taken back by the visual of the smoke plume coming off the mountain. It was suddenly obvious to me then there was a potentially serious fire burning on the mountain.

We continued to my parents’ house and had dinner. My brother had driven from Utah County and remarked on seeing the smoke as he drove north on Interstate 15.

The smoke was obviously affecting many in the Salt Lake Valley as the winds carried the smoke north. Christine got on the computer at my parents’ house and read a news story about how residents in The Cove were being evacuated and the amount of smoke was causing problems because it was limiting visibility. We decided to head home after 7:30 p.m.

As we drove south on Bangerter Highway, our level of concern began to elevate. The mountain was no longer encompassed by just a plume of smoke, but there was also a prominent red-orange glow that become more and more prominent as darkness set in.

After we turned onto 12600 South to head into Herriman, we began to notice throngs of people pulled over to the side of the road and out of their cars with cameras, video cameras, cell phones, and binoculars, gazing southward at the fire on the mountainside.

It was a spectacular sight, nothing like you’re ever used to seeing at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. It evoked memories of the visuals of Mordor from the Lord Of The Rings films. One of my neighbors later wrote he had been joking Sunday he was living near “Mount St. Herriman” in a reference to the Mount St. Helens volcano eruptions in the early 1980s.

So far, the fire was merely an intriguing spectacle. Traffic was heavy for a Sunday evening, but it seemed the extra traffic was due to spectators. As we drove up the hill to our home, things were more chaotic. Residents and spectators were visible in nearly equal numbers as well as law enforcement.

Mandatory evacuation

We stopped at a close neighbor’s home where there was a gathering of people. There we learned of the evacuation order that had just been issued. One of our neighbors was starting to panic. “What do we take with us?!” he asked.

As we drove home, I started pondering the possibility we might need to evacuate. In my mind, I considered what we should get out of the house. Our important documents (social security cards, birth certificates, bank account information, etc.) were in a small Sentry fire safe. All our digital photos and lots of other valuable data was stored on our Linux file server in the basement.

When we got home, we told the kids to hurry and pack a day or two of clothes to wear. I went to our storage room and got the 72-hour kits we’d put together a couple years before, one for each member of the family.

Being an insulin-dependent diabetic, I carry fast-acting insulin with me pretty much all the time, but I also inject a long-acting insulin analog in the evenings, so I packed that with my basic toiletry items.

We put our dog in the van.

Our oldest daughter was worried about her pet rats she keeps in a cage in her room. I wasn’t really that concerned about them, but she and my wife convinced me we should take them to a friend’s house who could take care of them temporarily. Our daughter called her friend who agreed to take the rats.

We decided not to do anything about our two cats as they were free-ranging and, we figured, they could get away from the house if the fire got to it.

I disconnected our file server and took it to the garage and fetched our safe as well. My wife grabbed a box from our bedroom closet that had family pictures in it. We packed our clothes and items we were “saving” into the back of our van and the trunk of my wife’s car.

The entire time we were running through the house gathering items, police officers were driving up and down the road in their patrol vehicles running their sirens and talking over their PA horns saying, “Evacuate now! The fire is here!”

There were no firefighters in sight.

It took us about ten minutes to get everything gathered and packed into the vehicles. After I had pulled the van out into the driveway, I got out and quickly took a picture with my phone of the fire advancing toward our house from the west. My kids, especially my younger daughter, was hysterical inside the van that I would delay our escape to take a photo. As you might imagine, tensions were running a bit high.

Here’s the one photo I took of the flames advancing on our neighborhood.

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Because we were taking the rats to our daughter’s friend who lived in a nearby neighborhood, we didn’t take the major artery roads out of our neighborhood. As a result, we didn’t run into any of the congestion others reported having to deal with.

After we dropped off the rats, my wife and I convened outside our vehicles for a few minutes to decided where we should go. We didn’t have any family close-by. My parents already had my brother and his son living with them, so there really wasn’t any room there. We considered the possibility we might be out of our house for several days and we’d want to be somewhat close to Christine’s work and able to get the kids to school. In the end, we decided to go to Sandy where there were several hotels.

We drove to Sandy and listened to the news on the radio as we went. Of course, the headline news was the fire in Herriman, but there wasn’t any information being broadcast that we didn’t already know.

We checked into a Residence Inn in Sandy and they offered us a special $65 rate because were evacuees. We got a room on the third floor with a window that afforded us a view of the South Mountain burning. There were others there at the hotel who were in the same situation as us. While the hotel allowed animals—and several evacuee families had animals with them—I called my parents and asked them to come get our dog.

We stayed up late, me later than the others, watching the news coverage on television (ABC4 and Fox13 did the best jobs). I was also online following the #herrimanfire Twitter feed, Facebook, and listened to a Utah Highway Patrol radio feed provided by RadioReference.com.

We heard a couple of our neighbors on the TV news, answering reporters’ questions via cell phone. Our neighbor Jody told ABC4 he could see our houses from where he was and he could see water being sprayed by firefighters either one the houses or behind them. In any case, he could tell, at that point, our houses were still okay.

I chatted with a couple of our neighbors via Facebook. One of them told me her “cop friend” had been in touch with her and let her know that all of our homes were still okay, save one. There was one home at the top of Friendship Drive, she said, that was burning.

(Thank goodness that story turned out to be false.)

I chatted with one friend on Facebook who lives a few blocks away from us outside the mandatory evacuation area. His family had left their home, but he stayed behind. He told me he could see a home in Sol Vista Circle that sits to the west of our house and it was still okay. This home is the only house in that circle and is surrounded by mountain terrain. I think everyone expected that house to burn just because it’s isolated and surrounded by fuel. My friend told me there were several firefighter vehicles in the circle and they had unloaded some heavy equipment to create a firebreak to the east beginning from that circle.

I found these photos on Facebook, taken by Greg Cutler, that shows the heavy equipment working behind the homes above Rose Summit Drive.

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My friend said there had been looters out in the neighborhood, but they had been dealt with quickly by law enforcement patrolling the streets. He also took a few pictures and uploaded them to Facebook for us.

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I called a couple of our neighbors and exchanged information with them. A couple of them were still in the Herriman area. Several other neighbors and friends and family of neighbors also exchanged information with me via Facebook or Twitter. The online communities were being well utilized that night.

I finally went to bed around 4 in the morning.

Thoughts and perspective in hindsight

Looking back, there are lots of things I’m glad we did or wish we had done differently.

Planning ahead as we approached our home was smart. Having our 72-hour kits ready to go and having all our important documents in one place (the safe) was also good.

We probably should not have left our cats behind. In the end, it worked out fine. When we arrived back home, the cats were snuggled in the garage just like they would be on any normal day (except the garage smelled like a campfire). Salt Lake County had set up a shelter for pets and other animals which would have been a good place to take our cats until we were able to return to the house.

Our 72-hour kits consist of basic hygiene items, water, food, and a “space blanket.” We didn’t really need any of these things for this event and it made us wonder if we should have a couple different kinds of 72-hour kits.

While Christine grabbed a box of family photographs to take out of our house, there were still several photo albums and another box of photos that were left behind. In a day and age where photos can and should be preserved digitally, it makes sense that all those photos should be scanned and stored on a medium we can take with us.

I regret all those times I passed up CERT training or HAM radio training. Fortunately, Herriman City just happens to be doing both in October, so I will be doing at least one of them so that I can be better prepared the next time an emergency like this occurs.

Herriman City did an excellent job of getting information out via Twitter and Facebook. Other methods, such as “reverse 911” seemed to have failed miserably.

While I was able to get in touch with several our neighbors in the hours after we were evacuated, we were out of touch with most of them. It would have helped greatly if we had cell phone numbers for all our neighbors.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this write-up, we really didn’t think much of the fact there was a fire on the mountains behind us until it was very obviously barreling down toward our house at a high rate of speed. In hindsight, knowing there was a fire on the mountain, relative humidity was very, very low, and winds were gusting upwards of 60-70 miles per hour, should have caused a lot more concern.

Insurance

Going through this experience gave us an opportunity to to think about our homeowners’ insurance. Our home was purchased as a short sale and, because of this and because the housing market is depressed at the moment, if our house were destroyed, a policy payout for “market value” would probably allow us to rebuild, but we wouldn’t be able to rebuild our house. We’d have to settle for something less than our house. For this reason, we’ve been talking about discussing changes to our policy with our agent so that if our house were destroyed, it could be replaced.

Staying behind

We’ve heard a few stories of people who stayed despite the evacuation order. For the most part, I think this is unwise. However, there were some residents to the west of us whose homes basically sit between our house and the three homes that burned. They saw the flames heading down the mountain toward their street, saw there were no firefighters on the scene to protect their homes, and took matters into their own hands using garden hoses to soak the areas around their homes to try to save them from the fire.

(Read more about this in this Salt Lake Tribune story.)

Upon learning about this from the online news story, we talked about it and decided, if we had to go through a fire like this again, I’d stay behind, as long as there were other neighbors doing it too, and try to set up a defensive position against the fire. Obviously, this is dangerous business, but if there are no firefighters there when the flames arrive, you either walk away and consign your homes to complete destruction… or you do something.

Like I said, I wouldn’t do it alone— that’s just not smart. But, if there was a group of us working together, I’d stay and fight the fire, at least until the professionals arrived.

Misinformation

In any emergency situation there is bound to be a lot of misinformation, if any good information at all. We were fortunate to have Herriman City sending out tweets as new information became available.

Herriman City did a good job of only sending out valid information. The media, on the other hand, was all over the place. They had varying reports on different stations saying that churches had burned, that dozens of homes had been lost, and more. I remember one station was actually carrying the governor giving a statement about the fire from the command center and when we changed the channel to another station, they had no idea the governor had even arrived in Herriman.

It seems the news media got their best information from Twitter and from cell phone calls from residents in the area (when cell phones worked.)

The problem of misinformation is another motivation to set up a reliable network of information sources ranging from online information and people’s cell phone numbers. I think, despite the problems with voice communications over the cell phone network, most text messaging was working.

This is a repost from Doran Barton (Fozz), and can be found originally at his blog: Fozzolog

4 thoughts on “The night of the Herriman (Machine Gun) Fire”

  1. Thanks for sharing. It was a very interesting experience to follow the fire, and I agree that the twitter usage really was the best way to keep track of things. Very glad to see the people reflecting on their evacuation experiences, and what they need to improve on.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I’m curious, have you considered uploading scans of important documents to an online backup service (with appropriate encryption, of course)? We are slowly trying to do that currently in our house, and it’s taking a while, but I can imagine that if there was a disaster while we were not at home, it would at least preserve some of those documents that could otherwise be lost.

    I do keep most documents in a fireproof safe, but I’ve heard that some house fires get too hot for those safes… Not sure, though.

    Anyway, thanks again for this. It gave me some definite things to think about. And, of course, glad that your house ended up okay.

  3. Thanks for sharing and I think it is great that you’ve shared your lessons learned. I’m glad everything worked out for you and your family.

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