Robert Lyman points to the location behind his cabin where the Brian Head Fire started at Brian Head, Utah, on June 17, 2017. Photo taken June 6, 2022 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News
BRIAN HEAD – Friday marks the fifth anniversary of the Brian Head Fire, which began on June 17, 2017, and ended up burning more than 71,000 acres of federal, state and private land within Iron and Garfield counties.
To mark the occasion, St. George News / Cedar City News is taking an exclusive, retrospective look at the fire and its aftermath, including details previously undisclosed to the public. The story will be released as a four-part series over the course of a week.
Cedar City News recently interviewed 65-year-old Robert Lyman at his property where the fire started five years ago.
Lyman, a retired basketball coach, and his wife Kathy, who recently retired from teaching elementary school, live in Salt Lake County. Their modest cabin just off state Route 143 near the top of Parowan Canyon has been in the Lyman’s family since it was built in the 1960s.
Lyman said he and his wife planned to burn accumulated piles of trees and branches, collectively called slash, to create a defensible space behind their cabin. They previously hired a crew of arborists to cut down several trees that were too close to the cabin and cut them up into smaller pieces. The Lymans visited the cabin the previous month but were unable to burn anything then, as there was still a blanket of snow on the ground.
Then, on that Friday morning of June 17, Lyman piled some cut branches and sticks onto a level spot on the hillside. He had a running hose waiting as he prepared to ignite the slash pile, just as he’d also done on previous days without incident.
It was late in the morning, just after 11:30, Lyman recalled, but the slash pile was still within the shade of the tall evergreens lining the hillside to the east. The weather was clear, cool and calm, he said, adding that the wind didn’t pick up until later that afternoon.
“When the fire started, it was less windy than it is right now,” he said. “A light breeze, hardly blowing at all. Nothing. There’s no way I would have burned if the wind was blowing. ”
Unbeknownst to Lyman, the fire he started wasn’t just burning the pile of branches above the surface of the ground, it was also spreading underground, creeping through what’s known as duff, a thin layer of composting organic material just above the mineral soil.
Lyman said he noticed the “weird looking” burn, which he described as “kind of a drippy burn, like oil or kerosene.”
“I didn’t think about it,” he said. “I just saw the fire. I didn’t sit there and think, ‘Well, that’s, you know, a drippy looking kind of burn.’ But nonetheless, I worked around it to keep it in check. ”
“I had the hose on the right side of the fire, and I was squirting it,” he said. “Then I came down below and got on this side of the fire and was squirting it. And then when I came back, I didn’t see it happen, but when I got into the view, I got around to the side of the fire. I looked up 25 feet, and there was a fire burning. ”
Flames had already started to shoot up the trunk of a standing tree, he said.
“It just started. It was gone, ”he said, adding that he could only watch helplessly as the fire quickly began to spread into the other trees lining the hillside.
Lyman said they had no idea the fire could spread underneath the surface of the ground.
“I didn’t know,” he said. “And I thought,‘ I can’t tell people this. They’re gonna think I’m crazy. ‘”
“It wasn’t the wind that did it,” he added. “But I didn’t know what, and I was frustrated by that. But then when Sheldon (Wimmer) came out and looked at it, he explained it, and it just all made total sense. ”
Wimmer is a now-retired fire authority who worked for 43 years for the federal government in the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, including spending the last 18 years of his career as the state wildland fire management officer for the BLM.
Wimmer told Cedar City News his subsequent investigation corroborated the details of Lyman’s account.
“It just got away from him and crept through the duff and took up a tree,” Wimmer said. “And it was like any of us; we make mistakes. But he had a hose up there, he had water up there, he had everything to protect it, but it got away from him. And that happens. ”
“I wanted to tell the world, ‘This is how it started,'” Lyman said. “But if I had gone public, then it gives the prosecution time to prepare for it, to prepare for that argument. Because to this day, they don’t know how it started. Nobody knows all of these experts. That’s one thing I found out. Everybody’s an expert on forest fires. They all came out like it was Monday Night Football. ”
Although the fire’s point of origin was only about 10 yards or so from Lyman’s cabin, it burned up the hill away from the structure, leaving the cabin untouched.
Within minutes of the fire starting, emergency respondents were notified of the incident via multiple 911 calls.
Brian Head Town Marshal Dan Benson said he was in Parowan when he was first paged about the fire.
“I immediately called the deputy that was on duty, and he was already en route to it,” Benson told Cedar City News. “I was on the phone with him as he was pulling up to it. And he says, ‘We’re gonna need a lot of help right off the bat.’ ”
“They rolled up with our first truck in and started spraying water on it, but it was getting so big, so fast that the first truck wasn’t going to be enough,” Benson added. “So we immediately went into a defensive mode, defensive tactics. That’s when we started calling in extra resources. ”
“And we were already starting to really get big resources headed our way because it was growing so fast and so rapid. Because of the location it was in, it was very slope-driven, ”he explained. “It was in a steep area of the canyon, plus the winds were prevailing out of the northwest, which is not common for us. But it was driving that fire straight up the canyon and into Brian Head. ”
Benson said he remembered there had been a fuel reduction project that took place about a quarter mile from the Lyman cabin.
The move, he said, was “an attempt, if there’s ever a fire in the canyon, to hopefully slow it down and give us an opportunity to catch it.”
“I was parked at that fire break, and I thought, ‘Well, let’s see what this does to it,'” Benson recalled. “And it went through and over that break, and it didn’t even slow it down a bit. And that’s when the decision was made to start evacuating the town. ”
Benson said his deputies went door-to-door in a coordinated effort to alert Brian Head residents and visitors that they needed to evacuate immediately to a trailhead overlooking the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument.
Benson said Lyman was still at his cabin when the firefighters began to arrive on the scene.
“He was actually there trying to fight the fire as our first fire truck pulled up, and he was doing what he could with what he had. It just was ineffective, ”Benson recalled. “At that point, my deputy said,‘ You’ve got to go. You’ve got to evacuate. This is unsafe for you. It’s unsafe for us. ‘”
Benson said the aerial attack on the blaze commenced rapidly.
“We had resources of every kind, within the hour,” he said, adding that some planes were already going overhead within approximately 30 minutes of the fire starting.
“We were so blessed that day to be so close to a tanker base in Cedar City that was loaded with air tankers, and they were ready to go,” Benson said. “They were dumping quickly. We had numerous heavy air tankers and SEATs, which are single engine air tankers, like crop dusters. And they were working in unison. It was an airshow, there’s no doubt about it. ”
“Because of the rapid pace that it was growing, you couldn’t really put firefighters out in front of it; it was just growing too fast, ”they said. “So by getting everybody out of town, we could then focus on the fire at hand and instead of worrying about people in residencies and things like that. We could focus on the fire and saving structures. It made all the difference. ”
Lyman recalled being panicked as the evacuation ensued.
“I couldn’t look at it. I was crying. I was in a state of… I can’t even describe what I felt like. ”
Lyman said he remembered being deeply concerned for the safety of the firefighters and pilots.
“The scariest thing for me was being up at 10,000 feet and watching the circle of airplanes come around,” he said. “I’ve never been more frightened than anything in my life, because I thought they were going to crash.”
Lyman said when they drove into Brian Head as the town was being evacuated, they went straight to the public safety building.
“I’m in a panic, I’m in a state of shock,” he said. “But the first thing I did was I went to the marshal’s office to turn myself in, or to give them my side. I mean, I wasn’t trying to get away with anything. ”
Benson confirmed that Lyman was cooperative from the onset.
“He worked with us,” they said. “He didn’t run from it or anything like that.”
But it was just the beginning of a yearslong saga of turmoil for Lyman and the thousands of other people affected by the blaze.
Ed. Note: This is the first of a four-part series marking the anniversary of the Brian Head Fire. Check back on St. George News / Cedar City News over the course of the next week for the other installments.
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