Help brings hope as fire cleanup makes way for new homes

Thanks to Team Rubicon and the Utah Conservation Corps, approximately 80 hazard trees were cut up and removed from the burn area of the Cinema Court fire over the weekend, according to Kris Hurlburt of the Grand County Office of Emergency Management. The groups worked in sweltering 105-degree heat, cutting roughly 5,000 cubic feet of wood that was chipped or sent to the landfill, Hurlburt said. Now, landowners in the burned area are one step closer to rebuilding and planning for fire fuels mitigation in creek areas.

The county set up two tents for the teams, said Bob Toth, Team Rubicon state administrator for Utah. “The county was phenomenal with helping us, being able to get things done and being able to stay cool and help support us doing our job down there,” Toth said.

Team Rubicon, a veteran and civilian volunteer group, works on disaster relief at home and abroad, Toth said. “About 70 percent of our members are veterans, 30 percent are civilians and we’d love it if people in Moab wanted to get involved with Team Rubicon … it’s a good way for people to have camaraderie. If you’re not a veteran, it’s not a big deal,” Toth said. Anyone interested in joining the group can contact Toth at [email protected]

With dead and dying trees removed from the burn area and most of the equipment and burned cars out of the site, Hurlburt said, the next step is to evaluate possible home sites.

“The laws have changed over the years so that people that were in one position might not be able to build there again because of the mapping of the waterway … in the next few days a few surveyors are volunteering their time to come out and shoot those elevations on the houses that they know need to be lifted if they’re going to rebuild. So there’s some different options for the people. Some of them can rebuild on the same footprint but may have to raise the house. The others may have to move back on their lot to rebuild to get away from the creek line that’s been mapped … after that, people can make decisions about what they’re going to do,” Hurlburt said.

Hurlburt described how several families have already begun rebuilding. One has even submitted building plans to the county. “It’s not easy. It’s still hard and it’s emotional for the families. However there was a bit more of a sense after this weekend that things are really moving now, which is really encouraging for everybody,” Hurlburt said.

The whole process was remarkable for the outpouring of community support, Hurlburt said. “I can’t say enough about the community. It’s been an amazing experience to be a part of it. Not only has the community been volunteering but the affected families have been volunteering. It’s been awesome.”

As she has asked before, Hurlburt requested that the community refrain from driving by the burned neighborhood to observe. “Please don’t look. It’s so intrusive to these people who are really vulnerable right now and while you may not be looking at them, it feels like people are looking at them. Just give them some time,” she said.

Meanwhile, there is not a great need for volunteers at the burn site, but Hurlburt said the community members can help to avoid similar disasters by creating defensible spaces around their homes. “So clean the gutters,” Hurlburt said. “Clean around your houses. Clean around your yards. And then go help somebody else who doesn’t have the ability to do it themselves. If you see trash in the street, pick it up. Let’s clean up town and get all that combustible material away.” She added that there is no permitted burning at this time, so material needs to be thrown away.

Next, Moab City and Grand County are tackling vegetation management and fuels reduction in the creeks. Kara Dohrenwend of Rim to Rim Restoration is taking the lead on the effort. Dohrenwend told The Times-Independent that the Utah Conservation Corps is currently working with the city and the Grand County School District to clear brush around the bus shed on 400 East near Pack Creek.

“That was the number one fuels concern location for a number of people, and since it is on land owned by a public institution it is getting immediate attention,” Dohrenwend said. “There are a few locations in the city limits along the creeks identified where fire fuels come close to buildings and other structures … I will be looking into ownership of those parcels and the city and I will be contacting land owners about strategies to tackle those fire fuels concerns in the near term. Most of these parcels are on private property.”

Longer term, Dohrenwend is looking at where fire fuel breaks can be cut through the creek. These breaks, she said, would be located near hydrants to give firefighters a place to stop any future fires that start in the creek. After that, Dohrenwend hopes to begin “helping coordinate efforts with the 80-plus private land owners of property in Pack Creek to devise a plan to transform Pack Creek similarly to how we have worked on Mill Creek in town over the past 15 years—from a mostly olive/elm/tree of heaven thicket to a functional riparian habitat where we can also look at ways to reconnect the creek’s ground water to its adjacent lands, and better manage flood flows. Since the land is almost all private along the creek bottom it is a tough challenge to work in the bottomlands but I think that it is really possible.”

Better vegetation management in the creek bottoms serves many purposes, Dohrenwend said, including fire fuels reduction. “Others are improving flood flows, improving habitat and also increasing public safety in the areas of the creeks with public pathways. I have worked on these projects through town for over 15 years with over 40 land owners and various government entities including the city, FFSL, the county and the school district. Creeks connect us all.”

Eventually, Dohrenwend will be looking for volunteers to help with the vegetation clean up, though the need is not immediate—first Dohrenwend has to formulate detailed plans for vegetation management. Interested volunteers can contact Dohrenwend at [email protected] or leave a message at (435) 259-6670.

ByBy Rose Egelhoff

The Times-Independent