County leads fire recovery efforts

It wasn’t until the morning of Monday, June 18 that the Cinema Court fire was declared to be fully extinguished.

Firefighters have been in the process of mopping up for the past week, after the fire burned several homes and outbuildings. They have put out spot fires caused by flying embers and put water on glowing coals, making sure the fire did not flare back up.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, but officials say that it was clearly human-caused. The Grand County Sheriff’s Office is currently offering a $1,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the individual or individuals responsible for the fire.

“Most people have found housing with family friends,” said Kris Hurlbert of Grand County Emergency Management, a department that has been central in coordinating the response to the fire. “Now we’re essentially looking for housing for one person.”

Hurlbert said that a home and a trailer were donated. The donations for the fire fund reached $25,000 by Tuesday night, Hurlbert added. Grand County Credit Union is still accepting donations to the fund, which is called “Cinema Court Fire.”

The fire area remains closed as of Wednesday due to possible health hazards. Hurlbert said that any structures built before 1967 may contain asbestos, which becomes airborne when burned and can be extremely dangerous. The public is asked to stay clear of the area affected by the fire for that reason.

Firefighters reflect

The asbestos problem came to the attention of Grand County officials two days after the fire, a firefighter said at a debrief on Monday, June 18. “There were people all around the houses the next day and they were still smoking and still putting out fumes. Those people should have been kept out of that area because the risk was still there on asbestos … they need to know that it’s a health hazard,” said Moab Valley Fire District Commissioner Tom Shellenberger.

However, families were eager to get back into the site. Two families were not insured, according to Fire Chief Phil Mosher. “A lot of people weren’t insured and they were just sifting through their stuff … not your average scenario,” added fire captain Monty Curtis.

As the fire district reflected on the blaze, fire commissioner Archie Walker assured firefighters that he stood behind the decisions they made during the fire. “Absolutely everybody who showed up there on that fire are heroes,” Walker said.

The fire district went on to discuss the limitations they were under during the inferno.

“Obviously, personnel is a resource that we were spread thin on. We just had some new people come on, getting our numbers up to 30. We’re always looking for more people,” said Curtis of the volunteer force. “We were meeting half an hour before this fire broke out. We had a commission meeting. One of the topics was how do we recruit more people. It’s very difficult right now. It seems like volunteerism is way down. People don’t volunteer. We’re having the same problem with search and rescue. We don’t have nearly enough people,” said Shellenberger.

The fire district lamented declining volunteerism, a problem that has affected many volunteer fire departments. However, Mosher said, the fire seemed to have raised awareness of the need for firefighters. Mosher received three new applicants on Monday.

The lack of personnel in the fire department made the response by citizens and cooperating agencies crucial to the effort to beat the blaze. Walker recounted how one firefighter and a group of citizens formed a bucket brigade to defend a subdivision.

“My mother’s house is still standing because of citizens,” professed one member of the audience at the de-brief. Curtis added, “We never had to call for mutual aid…and I think a good lesson learned is don’t be bashful. There’s a lot of people out there willing to step it up and help us. Don’t be too proud to ask for help. They were immensely helpful,” said Curtis.

The response to the call for mutual aid was generous. In total, 24 engines and other help responded. The Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and engines from Blanding, East Carbon, Green River, Huntington, La Sal and Monticello all came to Moab’s aid.

The fire demanded some unusual tactics, Mosher said.

“When you have ten structure fires and you’re hooking up to multiple hydrants in that zone, we’re getting that water source out of that municipal system,” Mosher said. The result was that the firefighters depleted the water levels. A pressure-reducing valve had to be opened to give the firefighters more water pressure.

“That’s when we were able to catch a hold of it … that’s why you bring water tenders and tankers,” Mosher said.

As a result of the valve being opened, some users water lines were blown but Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency said their operators were able to fix the four resulting leaks in less than eight hours.

“Recognize that that fire grew exponentially,” said Fire Captain Judd Hill. “That fire did not exist at 5:45 p.m. By 6:15 there were a half dozen houses involved and it kept growing… Every one of those [structures] were a lifetime of issues for those individuals that lost something but had there not been strong organization at the beginning, that just as easily by 8 p.m. could have been still growing and been at the highway. It absolutely could have been at Hwy. 191 an hour later had there not been great organization and really tough decisions being made to draw a line here.”

Moving forward

On Monday, state, city and county officials met to discuss the clean up, fire prevention and victim services. In addition to the efforts of Grand County Emergency Management to house victims of the fire, the county now is planning to work on fire fuel mitigation in Pack Creek and other areas. They are also coordinating volunteers for the clean-up effort. Kara Dohrenwend of Rim to Rim Restoration has volunteered to lead the fuel mitigation effort.

“It was a successful comprehensive coordinating and planning effort between all agencies involved,” said County Council Vice Chair Curtis Wells.

“The meeting was comprehensive and it is evident that the county will be taking the lead,” said Moab Police Chief Jim Winder. “That will include efforts as it relates to fuel load mitigation in the Pack Creek, the clean up of the damaged homes [and] the volunteer donation and distribution efforts. From my standpoint we’re going to be transitioning … we’re going to try to go to a single source for information and relief efforts.”

For more information on the fire and the recovery, see the Cinema Court Fire Coordination Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CinemaCourtFireCoordination/.

ByBy Rose Egelhoff

The Times-Independent