High Desert Hoofbeats
Good times?

Mid-summer monsoon storms are washing away fire fears across the region. From the Kaibab Forest in extreme southern Utah east to Durango, Colo., federal agencies are easing up on fire restrictions. But here in Moab, last I looked, full-strength fire bans were still in place. As they should be. There is too much at stake and it’s still terribly dry.

The Four Corners fire season started early and savagely, with big blazes in southwestern Colorado, Arizona and central Utah. Blessedly, our dear La Sal Mountains have escaped getting much of a singe, even though their burn conditions have been just about as bad as other parts of our region that received just a fraction of their average winter snowfall, as did we. Fire-fighters are getting a handle on most of the terribly destructive blazes, but there are still a lot of calendar days left in terms of fire risk and probability.

The fires that stick out in our memories, like the Yellowstone blaze back in the late ‘80s and last year’s Glacier Park inferno that destroyed vast areas and historic lodges, were late-summer blazes that weren’t completely extinguished until autumn snowstorms fell. Most were caused by people, although lightning has always been a big factor.

It puzzles me why people want to build campfires on the desert when daytime temperatures approach triple digits. I see it all the time along the Colorado River throughout the summer. Perhaps it’s the allure of making a gooey-melted “S’more” or roasting hot dogs on willow sticks. Maybe it’s because many of our campers live in cities and don’t have the opportunity to play with matches and kindling in their cramped apartments and suburban backyards.

In the mountains it’s a different matter, as evenings get chilly and one can yearn for the warmth of a campfire even in July and August.

Campfires are just one source of wayward sparks. The holidays of Fourth of July, and 20 days later Pioneer Day in Utah, are cause for people wanting to light things off. Here in Moab we squeaked by Independence Day without any problems, largely because the Cinema Court fire is still on our minds and enforcement was high.

On the day the Dollar Ridge fire started in central Utah, my husband and I were driving to Salt Lake City. It was a sunny and clear Sunday afternoon, but from 100 miles away we could see the smoke-caused puffy clouds creating their own weather front over the mountains between Price and Provo. Having heard a lot of news about the big Trail Mountain Fire that started June 4 as a controlled burn in the Sanpete/Carbon county region, I assumed that’s what we were viewing. In the news office we had been getting daily updates from the Forest Service about the Trail burn. But when we stopped at Soldier Summit for some jerky and a coke, the smoke coming from mountains to the east was really thick and big, and the orange glow of fire reflected off of it. The clerk at the gas station said that the blaze had just broken out a few hours prior. It wasn’t the Trail Fire. She was alarmed, and rightly so.

That blaze, which we now know as the Dollar Ridge Fire, shut down Highway 40 near Duchesne and torched dozens of summer homes. It was human caused, as have been most of the fires that have burned across the West this summer.

It’s been more than two weeks since we saw those fires, which have continued to flare. The Trail Mountain Fire is more than 90 percent contained and officials estimate that it will be totally out by Aug. 1. It has consumed more than 18,000 acres. The Dollar Ridge Fire has destroyed about 57,000 acres so far and is just 65 percent contained, although it no longer threatens private properties. Cabin owners in its vicinity are just now being allowed back into the area, following the evacuations of hundreds of people and the destruction of dozens of summer homes and outbuildings. Smoke from the fires will be visible for weeks.

Given the causes and effects—namely humans creating catastrophes—it seems that a person would have to be a complete idiot to build a campfire knowing that restrictions are in place. But those types exist. Take for example our ex-national representative Jason Chaffetz, who quit his Third Congressional District job mid-term to become a conservative news commentator. Early last week, as the Dollar Ridge Fire was tearing through homes and forests, he posted an online picture of himself in the mountains of American Fork Canyon, with a campfire blazing away on the bare earth, the flames licking near forest grasses. “Good times,” he wrote to his fans on social media.

Unfortunately, times aren’t so good in the drought-parched Southwest. And they’re especially difficult where humans have sparked such devastating fires.

ByBy Sena Taylor Hauer