Citing severely hot and dry weather conditions, officials have implemented fire restrictions for eastern and southeastern Utah effective Thursday, June 29.
According to a news release from the Utah Interagency Fire Center, the fire restrictions apply to all state lands, unincorporated private lands, and Bureau of Land Management lands within Grand, San Juan, Carbon, Emery, Duchesne, Uintah and Daggett counties. The fire restrictions also apply to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur, Hovenweep, and Natural Bridges national monuments and Ute tribal lands within the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.
As of June 28, the National Weather Service had placed red flag warnings in effect for almost the entire state of Utah, plus parts of five neighboring states. Continued high temperatures, low relative humidity, and gusty wind conditions are expected, which makes for hazardous fire conditions throughout the region, officials said.
Bureau of Land Management Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Bryant said June 28 that Moab Interagency Fire Center crews have been responding to reports of smoke and extinguishing small brush fires on BLM lands “almost daily.”
“Fire Danger is high and there is an abundance of dried grass and vegetation following a wet winter,” Bryant said. “Please do not endanger yourself or others; be firewise and firesafe.”
On Tuesday, June 27, a fire along Castleton Road in Castle Valley caused electrical power to be disrupted for nearly six hours and threatened a nearby structure. Witnesses described seeing an explosion in the creek below the power lines that run along the La Sal Mountain Loop Road one-quarter mile west of the entrance to DayStar Adventist Academy. Gusting winds quickly spread the blaze across the road and along the creek toward a dormitory building on the school property, Castle Valley Fire Department officials said.
Traffic was shut down for nearly two hours as flames burned on both sides of the road. Five fire engines and 10 firefighters from the Castle Valley Fire Department initially responded to the blaze. The Moab Interagency Fire Center sent three wildland fire engines, a water-tender and a helicopter, which dropped water from a nearby pond on the flames to extinguish the blaze. The Interagency Fire Center took control of the firefighting efforts after determining the fire was located on federal lands.
Tiffany Erickson of Rocky Mountain Power said a tree blown down by heavy winds fell on a power line, causing the explosion and the resulting 3.4-acre blaze. Electrical service was restored to all affected customers by 10:25 p.m., Erickson said. The fire was declared officially out by 9 p.m. but fire crews from the Bureau of Land Management spent the night on the scene to monitor the situation.
On June 22, local fire crews battled a large brush fire in an open area west of Thompson Springs. The blaze ended up charring 141 acres, but firefighters were able to prevent it from spreading further.
“That was a huge save,” said Moab Valley Fire Chief Phil Mosher, who noted that crews from Thompson Springs, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Utah Department of Natural Resources also joined in battling the fire.
Mosher said Moab Valley Fire Department has also recently responded to several smaller fires in Spanish Valley and other areas of the county.
“We just want to make sure that everybody follows the restrictions that are in place,” he said, encouraging residents to be extra careful with fire and fireworks as the Fourth of July holiday approaches.
Moab city and Grand County will once again host their annual fireworks show at dusk on July 4 from the cliffs east of town near Lions Back on Sand Flats Road.
Mosher reminded residents to make sure they know where personal fireworks are allowed and to take proper precautions before lighting them, such as setting up a launching area that is flat and clear of weeds and flammable debris, and having a water hose or bucket close at hand.
“Dip every firework in a bucket of water after it’s been used,” he said.
So far in 2017, about 90 percent of Utah’s wildfires have been human-caused, according to Heather O’Hanlon, a BLM public information officer responsible for fire mitigation and education.
“Usually it’s about 50 percent human caused and 50 percent natural, like lightning,” O’Hanlon said. “People really need to be more careful in these conditions.”
One such human-caused fire is the Brian Head fire, which investigators believe was accidentally started by a person using a weed torch near Brian Head ski resort on June 17. As of June 28, that southwestern Utah blaze had already consumed 55,000 acres in the Panguitch Lake area, with only 10 percent containment. More than 1,600 firefighters are currently battling that fire, the smoke from which has been spreading across the region, creating hazy skies as far away as Moab.
On June 27, the Moab Police Department shared a short video on its Facebook page, which shows a man lighting weeds on fire late at night in a residential yard behind a local downtown business. Multiple surveillance cameras captured the suspect in the act of setting the fire and riding away from the scene on his bicycle. The incident reportedly occurred shortly after midnight on June 23. Responding fire crews were able to prevent damage to any structures, but officials are worried the suspect may attempt to light additional fires.
The video was viewed more than 37,000 times as of Wednesday morning, June 28, and shared by more than 500 people. The Moab Police Department is seeking help identifying the suspect seen in the video clip. Those with information are asked to call 435-259-8938.
The region-wide fire restrictions prohibit a variety of activities, including campfires or open fires of any kind, except in designated fire grates in picnic or campground areas; smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or that is cleared to the mineral soil; and discharging or using fireworks and other pyrotechnic devices, firing tracer ammunition, or using welding or metal-cutting equipment. The news release from Utah State Forester Brian Cottam also states that it is illegal to possess or ignite fireworks on state or federal lands at any time.
Violators may be punished by fines of up to $5,000 in addition to potentially being financially responsible for reimbursing the cost of fighting any fire caused, the news release states.
Although Manti-La Sal National Forest Service lands are not included in the restrictions, campers and outdoor recreationists are encouraged to use caution in those areas as well.
The fire restriction order also does not apply to private lands within incorporated towns or city limits. However, Moab city has had its own restrictions in place since 2013, including a ban on fireworks, smoking, open fires, and combustible materials in all areas that are within 150 feet of either Mill Creek or Pack Creek.
For information about fire conditions and current fires in Utah, visit utahfireinfo.gov.
Times-Independent reporters Lisa J. Church and Ron Drake contributed to this story.