The Grand County Sheriff’s Office and Bureau of Land Management rangers are investigating more than a dozen small burned areas found this week in Mill Creek Canyon near Moab. The charred areas were discovered by Moab resident Sara Melnicoff as she was cleaning up trash in Mill Creek on Monday, July 1.
“I found about 15 or more spots that were burned, beginning on the trail past the confluence crossing and going up above Left Hand waterfall,” Melnicoff said on Tuesday, July 2.
In an email sent to members of Moab Solutions, a nonprofit group Melnicoff founded, she said she had noticed similar burned areas in Mill Creek several times over the past eight years, but the problem had not recurred in the last year or two.
“Many years ago ... I saw small fires in the parking area progress down the trail over the course of days and culminate in a fire,” Melnicoff wrote. “This happened for several years. I haven’t seen any of the burning for a year or two, so I thought it was over ... but it has me worried to see it happen again.”
The burned areas are of particular concern because of the fire danger they pose both to the canyon and to residential areas nearby, said Katie Stevens, an outdoor recreation planner for the BLM’s Moab Field Office.
“It has happened before and it’s very dangerous to life and property,” Stevens said. “I just want to tell whoever is doing this, stop. You are endangering the whole canyon system you love ... If that fire swept up into the canyon it could endanger residential areas. This could have very serious consequences. It’s literally playing with fire.”
Moab Valley Fire Chief Corky Brewer said it is clear that the fires were not accidental.
“Somebody’s intentionally trying to start the fires,” Brewer said. “One was in an area that absolutely would not spread. The other was in an area that absolutely would spread. Someone did put sand on that one, but it did not look like that was done by the person who started it.”
Brewer said the fire department is also investigating three other fires in Moab that appear to have been started intentionally. Two of those fires were started late at night in the Stewart Lane area near the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve. Another was started last Saturday near Pack Creek, behind a Main Street business.
“I don’t know if they’re all tied together or not,” Brewer said, adding that he believes the Mill Creek and Pack Creek fires were likely unrelated to the Stewart Lane fires. “They just look so darn different,” he said.
The sheriff’s department plans to step up foot patrols in Mill Creek Canyon in hopes of deterring those responsible from setting additional fires, said Grand County Sheriff Chief Deputy Darrel Mecham.
Moab Solutions is offering a $500 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons who are responsible for setting the fires in Mill Creek Canyon, Melnicoff said. Anyone who has information is asked to contact the Grand County Sheriff’s Office at 435-259-8115.
The sheriff’s office is collaborating with the BLM to resolve the fire problem as well as several recent incidents of vandalism, he said.
Over the past month, the BLM, in a collaborative effort with the Mill Creek Partnership, a stewardship project managed by Moab Solutions, has been installing trail signs and revegetating areas of the canyon that have been damaged by off-trail foot traffic. However, several of the signs were pulled out and thrown into the creek or bent and damaged. Melnicoff also reported finding graffiti spray painted on several rocks in the canyon. The vandalism occurred almost immediately after the signs were installed, said BLM Ranger Miles Gertler.
“We’re not trying to keep anybody out of Mill Creek. We’re just trying to channel them onto one trail,” Gertler said. “All we’re trying to do is protect the resources in there.”
Stevens noted that Mill Creek Canyon has seen a significant increase in visitation in the past few years and said the intention is to encourage those who are hiking to the waterfall to follow the designated path.
“The majority of people are going from point A to point B, and we’re just trying to clearly mark the designated trail,” she said. “This is not an attempt to stop people from going into the canyon.”