MOAPA — Traveling westbound on state Route 168 from Moapa, the scenery seems like a desert wasteland.
Then you hit Warm Springs. Green grass, palm trees and an abundance of natural hot springs.
“It’s an oasis in the desert,” said Sue Scofield, fighting back tears. “I’m sorry, I’m just a bit devastated about this.”
Scofield stood Friday morning in front of the charred remains of Warm Springs Ranch, a private recreational area for Mormons once owned by Howard Hughes.
The 75-acre facility included the former mansion — known as the “Big House,” a bath house, a spring-fed swimming pool and several campsites. It was deemed a complete loss.
It was the major structural casualty of a 600-acre fire that ripped through Moapa on Thursday, turning green to black and sending firefighters scrambling throughout the small community.
No injuries were reported in the fire.
It took 20 fire engines, an air tanker and fire crews from the Nevada Division of Forestry, Clark County and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management 12 hours to control the blaze, which began about 9 a.m., BLM officials said.
More than 100 firefighters spent Friday containing the fire, which was still actively burning in some “hot spots” but was no longer a threat to homes, BLM officials said.
On Thursday, BLM officials reported that 10 residential structures and five other buildings were destroyed. They did not provide details or estimates of the damage. No additional damage was reported Friday.
Officials also have not named an official cause for the fire, but a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintenance employee at the Moapa National Wildlife Refuge who witnessed the incident said it was started by a Southern Nevada Water Authority work crew trimming dead palm fronds off palm trees.
“I watched the whole thing unfold,” said the man, who asked only to be identified by his first name, Harvey.
Harvey said the fuel tank on a work truck erupted, spreading embers throughout the area. A wood chipper also became engulfed in flames. He immediately called 911 to report the incident, he said.
He heard several explosions as the blaze grew, he said.
“The whole thing was an adrenaline rush, for sure,” he said Friday, pointing at the blackened remains of the crew’s vehicles from his position at the refuge entrance, just south of the fire’s origin. “Thank God it didn’t come this way.”
Federal wildlife officials were uncertain Friday on the status of the Moapa dace — a tiny, endangered fish that inhabits the Muddy River in the refuge.
A federal biologist took water samples Friday, said fish and wildlife service spokesman Daniel Balduini.
“Hopefully by next week, we’ll have a biologist go in and snorkel to get a count, and see how they’re doing in regions involved in the fire,” Balduini said, adding that a 2009 count put the number of dace at 509.
“Right now, it’s a matter of how soon we can access the area.”
Dan Quimby, who helped neighbors near the fire evacuate, said he knew of one home that had been completely destroyed — a home on Warm Springs Road, directly southeast of the ranch and west of the wildlife refuge.
He said he was surprised more homes were not lost.
“In three hours it (the fire) had involved the whole area,” Quimby said.
Strong winds blew the flames north of Warm Springs Road, toward Route 168. Residents of Moapa said most of the damage appeared to be at the ranch.
Scofield, a former director of the ranch, stepped down in February after her one-year mission in Moapa was complete, she said.
After hearing a TV report that a fire had destroyed “Howard Hughes’ old home,” she drove from southern Utah to survey the damage, she said.
“I was called to serve here for the church, which was physical work,” said Scofield, whose duties, along with her husband, included heavy grounds maintenance. “In spite of all that, it was a wonderful place to serve. There’s a special spirit here. It’s almost like a sanctuary.”
A church spokesman said officials from Salt Lake City are assessing the damage. A decision on whether the facility will be rebuilt has not been made.
The Mormon Church has owned the area since 1978 after purchasing the land from the Hughes estate, she said. The businessman and aviator reportedly bought the property after spotting it from the air and never even set foot inside the ranch.
To her, and the families who traveled to the ranch from Southern Nevada and Utah each week, the ranch was more than a former asset of a dead billionaire, she said.
“I feel very blessed to be able to have served here,” she said, adding that she saw the colorful progress at Yellowstone National Park several years after a major fire.
The green may be gone for now, but Scofield said, she’s confident time will heal the wounds.
“It hurts to see the devastation, but we know it’s coming back.”
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at email@example.com or 702-383-0283.