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Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge evacuees return home

By Braley Dodson daily Herald - | Sep 22, 2018
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Lucas Anderson hands a box to his son, Matheus, 2, as their family moves some items back into their home Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Saturday morning the mandatory evacuation order for Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills was lifted, allowing people back into their homes. However, both cities are still on pre-evacuation status. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Violet Jones, 4, carries items to bring back into her home Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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A supportive sign hangs below a city welcome sign Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Officials talk with residents at a checkpoint as residents head back toward their homes Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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The Jones family, from right, Lilly, 10, Wes and Ethan, 13, unpack items from a trailer and move things back into their home Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Smoke rises from the mountainside Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Leighton Palombo, 12, mows the lawn of his yard as smoke rises from the mountainside Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Smoke rises from the mountainside Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Wes Jones, right, and his son Ethan, 13, carry items back into their home Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Lilly Jones, 10, pets one of their family cats, Felix, as Lilly's brother, Ethan, 13, carries items back into their home Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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The Jones family, from left, Wes, Byron, 15, Ethan, 13, and Becky unload items from a trailer to bring back into their home Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Smoke rises from the mountainside Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Elk Ridge. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Saturday morning was the homecoming thousands of Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge residents were afraid would never happen again.

A steady stream of cars filed into both municipalities Saturday morning to tears, waves and cheerful “welcome homes.”

“I expected to never come home,” said Brady Bott as he waited in his car to get through a Woodland Hills checkpoint.

On Sept. 13, residents closed windows, gathered up their belongings and evacuated their homes, not knowing what to expect when they returned.

On Saturday, after expecting to not be able to return home for at least another week due to the growing Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires, they came home to find their homes intact.

The Bald Mountain Fire had grown to 18,550 acres and was 18 percent contained as of Saturday afternoon, with the Pole Creek Fire at 99,693 acres and 33 percent contained.

On Friday evening, after watching flames burn up the mountainsides a week earlier, residents heard they’d be able to return home starting at 9 a.m. Saturday.

Bott said church groups planned to go out Saturday to begin helping people with cleanup. But as he waited in his car that morning, he wasn’t sure what that would entail.

“We don’t really know what we’ll see, but we’ll get through it,” Bott said.

Signs lined the road into Woodland Hills with “welcome home” messages and notes thanking firefighters for keeping their homes safe. No structures have been lost in the fires.

That small-town attitude made Ken Tullis grateful for his Woodland Hills community.

“Nobody cared about stuff, they cared about people,” Tullis said.

He’d been cautiously optimistic he’d be allowed to return home before the original two weeks they were told to expect to be evacuated.

“I’m just grateful everything will be fine,” Tullis said.

Residents drove past signs warning of high fire dangers to checkpoints, where they received stickers to place on their vehicles that will allow them in and out of the municipalities. Only residents were being allowed into Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills on Saturday.

Smoke still came from the nearby mountainsides and fire operations continue in the area.

Off-road access is not allowed in Woodland Hills, and there will be no access to areas of the city such as City Park, West Eagle Nest, cul-de-sacs and trails where fire operations are ongoing. There is also a general curfew from 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Remediation activities will seek to restore the stability of the hillside to avoid mudslide and avalanches.

When they heard about the mandatory evacuation order, Ashley McCune’s family grabbed their family “adventure books” of pictures and packed up their van. She waited in line at a checkpoint Saturday with a van full of belongings waiting to re-enter Elk Ridge.

“I mentally prepared for another week, so it’s exciting,” McCune said.

Other residents had been back in their homes for days. Sean Nielsen had initially evacuated his Elk Ridge home, but had returned home Sept. 15. Nielsen had been staying with his son in Santaquin, but didn’t want to wake up early and make the drive to his volunteer shift at a checkpoint.

Originally no one was able to get through the checkpoint, but Nielsen said after a couple of days people could be escorted to briefly visit their homes.

“I found out that if you told your escort that you were staying, they couldn’t make you leave,” Nielsen said.

He stayed on his property and mowed his lawn. The city was empty — but calm.

“There were no flames in the background,” Nielsen said. “All of us pictured there was this charred battleground and carnage and smoke and flames, and it was beautiful and nice.”

He said the smoke wasn’t any worse than the rest of the Utah Valley, and the only firefighters he saw were at checkpoints.

Nielsen, who lives in the middle of town, was frustrated that the entire town was given a mandatory evacuation order when it didn’t seem like the north and south ends faced the same risk. He’s grateful for the firefighters, even if he didn’t agree with the evacuation order.

Residents were asked to space out their return times as to not congest city streets. As people returned at a slower rate than Nielsen anticipated, he guesses the lengthy time it took to get through checkpoints on other days may have convinced people to be more spaced out.

“I was expecting a lineup of cars to be pouring in,” Nielsen said.

The cities are still on pre-evacuation status and the surrounding forest areas are under mandatory evacuation. About 70 homes in Elk Ridge above the golf course won’t have their gas turned on until Monday.

Residents in the Covered Bridge community, Diamond Fork, Sheep Creek and the right fork of Hobble Creek Canyon remain under evacuation.

Pre-evacuation were also lifted Friday for parts of Payson, Salem and the Spanish Fork area commonly known as Spanish Oaks.

Other road closures and evacuations remain in effect.

Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge residents can call (844) 681-5436 if they see additional, nearby fire activity.

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