“We’re damn lucky we didn’t get anyone hurt,” said Grand County Sheriff Steve White in the aftermath of a Tuesday evening inferno in Pack Creek not far from downtown Moab that blazed for more than two hours while scores of firefighters and front-line emergency personnel worked to protect nearby living structures, ten of which were consumed by the flames along with two parking canopies and a shop.
Officials have determined that the fire was human-caused with an open flame, and Moab Police Chief Jim Winder called it “suspicious.”
The conflagration, which was reported to law enforcement dispatch around 5:45 p.m. June 12 as “a brush fire near Cinema Court apartments” on Mill Creek Drive, quickly raged through tinder-dry cheat grass, cottonwood trees and other dense vegetation along the creek. While it appeared to have started on the north side of the creek, and was reported from the Cinema Court area, it spread through the creek bottom fueled by changing winds, doing most of its damage to houses and property on the south side of the waterway, confirmed Winder.
The Grand County Sheriff’s Department, assisted by other agencies, is leading the investigation into the fire, the exact cause of which has not been determined. A Wednesday statement from the police department said, “We recognize there are a lot of unanswered questions regarding yesterday’s tragic fire.”
Quickly after the blaze broke out, black smoke billowed into the air, filling the entire Moab Valley with smoke and ash while bright orange flames licked the trees and blew up into dry sections of vegetation and human belongings such as cars, motorcycles and gardens. As the fire gained strength, law enforcement officers went door-to-door telling residents to get out quickly. Many folks could be seen exiting their apartments, with dogs on leashes and cats wrapped in blankets, as they evacuated their homes. A makeshift shelter was initially set up at Gravel Pit Lanes, just across Mill Creek Drive from Cinema Court. People were also directed to the Grand Center.
A multitude of emergency responders arrived to help the Moab Valley Volunteer Fire Department fight the fire, some even coming from as far away as Green River, La Sal and Monticello. Other agency firefighters also joined the battle.
As towering old-growth cottonwood trees that had long provided canopy for nearby older neighborhoods caught fire, so did human possessions such as propane tanks, campers and other objects that sent off loud booms. Several Moab residents watched their family’s houses burn, bemoaning the losses and their memories as they watched their homes become engulfed and consumed by the fire. One resident cried while watching her grandparents’ home billow with smoke and fire. “There are guns and ammo in there,” she said, and within minutes dozens of pops, bangs and breaking glass could be heard as the fire destroyed the explosives.
Firefighters put their safety on the line as they pulled hoses past sizzling propane tanks and parked cars, breaking down walls and trying to get to the heart of the flames. Emergency commanders directed fire trucks and ambulances from one side of the huge blaze to another, trying to be of their best service. Vehicles raced between Holyoak Lane and Mill Creek Drive, warning folks to keep away as the fickle flames were driven by changing winds, vegetation and cottonwood “cotton” coating the ground up and down the creek. During this time onlookers, some bearing packs of water bottles and aid, streamed to the area. Many watched the blaze from atop the gravel hill to the north of the area, while others parked on the Dump Hill to see it unfold.
As the fire spread and firefighters worked to put it out, winds changed, turning what initially looked to be a westward advance toward downtown. But it remained a couple miles away from areas such as the high school on 400 East, and turned back toward the bridge that crosses Pack Creek near its intersection with Murphy Lane. That barrier, law enforcement confirmed, helped to stop the flames from spreading upstream.
“This is something that we are fearful of all the time,” said Sheriff White, who with Fire Chief Phillip Mosher spoke to The Times-Independent at the scene. “The conditions are extreme. Everything is extreme. We can’t be careful enough.” Sheriff White praised with heartfelt sentiments the efforts, donations and concerns of local residents and companies. “This is Moab, man!” he said.
At a press conference at 10 p.m. Tuesday, while the fire was being mopped up, Emergency Medical Services Director Andy Smith confirmed there were no injuries, other than six firefighters who were treated for smoke inhalation and/or heat exhaustion. One firefighter was transported to the hospital and is currently doing well, said Smith Wednesday. A press release from the Moab Police Department stated that some civilians also were examined. No pets were injured in the fire.
As the smoke billowed over the valley, a number of organizations came to the aid of the tragedy. Wendy’s fast food restaurant closed its doors and took food to the victims and volunteers. The Gonzo Inn and the Fairfield Inn and Suites opened rooms for people who were displaced. The Moab Diner was among the community efforts to offer free meals to people who have been displaced.
During the fire, crews from Rocky Mountain Power monitored electric lines and power was out for neighboring areas for an extended period. Dominion Energy was also on hand. More than 2,000 customers were without power for varying lengths of time, according to the power company, but it was restored late Tuesday evening. Some residents were not allowed into their homes Tuesday night as crews mopped up and surveyed the damage, monitoring hot spots. Cinema Court residents were allowed back into their homes near midnight Tuesday, being cautioned to enter by way of Mill Creek Drive instead of Holyoak Lane, parts of which were still closed as the night waned. Some folks who lost their homes were unable to survey the extent of their personal property damage until the following morning.
The fire ironically began while the Moab City Council was in session, discussing among other matters whether to issue permits for fireworks sales for Fourth of July. The council was advised that legally they were bound to allow the sale of small, class C fireworks such as sparklers and smoke bombs and approved the permits. They did, however, institute a ban on fireworks in sensitive areas of the city with fines of up to $1,000 for shooting off fireworks in prohibited areas.
As firefighters got the blaze under control, during a two-hour intense battle, other folks dragged water hoses where they could reach, to wet down peripheral areas in an effort to stave off further ignition by errant sparks. Water trucks from Le Grand Johnson sprayed down roadways next to the blaze, while firefighters worked to connect hoses to fire hydrants.
About 100 residents were directed to shelters at Gravel Pit Lanes, the Grand Center and the Family Support Center. Some Moab businesses posted on their Facebook pages that they were welcome to seek aid and shelter from them. Mike Badger of the Gonzo Inn stated in a Facebook post, “Our hearts go out to you…We will have coffee, phone lines and Wi-Fi available.”
Longtime Moab resident Shane Tangren told The Salt Lake Tribune that he “lost everything” in the fire. “I sat there and watched it burn to the ground,” he said. “Everything—photographs, birth certificates, memories—it’s all gone,” he said.
Former Grand County Council Member Chris Baird, who will be taking the office of county clerk/auditor and is a crafter of handmade mandolins, confirmed on social media that his shop had burned. He had not been permitted to enter his area to survey the damage as of Tuesday evening, as safety personnel were monitoring further blazes and dangerous conditions.
The exact cause of the fire remains unknown, but Sheriff White said that investigators have already begun working on the issue. The Utah Fire Marshall also arrived Wednesday morning, along with two state investigators. The sheriff encouraged any residents who have had fire damage to report it to the Grand County Sheriff’s Office.
“Anybody who’s seen anything, heard anything, we would like to hear from you,” White said, asking that anyone with information about the fire also come to the sheriff’s office.
The City of Moab’s Facebook page quoted Police Chief Winder as saying, “Many thanks to the Grand Valley Fire Department, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service firefighters, Grand County EMS, Moab City Police and Grand County Sheriff’s Office for their hard work and quick action in getting this situation under control. And to all those affected by the fire—please know your community supports you.”
As Wednesday dawned, Moab area agencies scheduled meetings to discuss aid to the victims of the fire, and that afternoon Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox toured the area.
ByBy Sena T. Hauer and Rose Egelhoff