Castle Valley Comments – Aug. 8, 2019

Our weather has been a little cooler lately as compared to the last couple of years, according to Bob Russell, our official weather observer. Russell says, “Our July was just slightly cooler than 2017 and 2018 by one to two degrees. Based on 2017-18, we can expect another drop of one to two degrees in August. Precipitation was expectantly low at 0.17 inches total for July and based upon the records will remain below an inch in August.”

He said that we do seem to be experiencing slowly increasing temperatures. “For example,” he said, “our 2019 July average maximum and minimum temperatures were 96 and 69. For the period 1971 – 2010, the numbers were 91 maximum and 63 minimum.” He concludes by advising us to “stay cool and watch out for thunderstorms.”

Our fire danger this year has not been as threatening as previous years, either. During the last two years we have had a fire restriction in place for the state by all state and federal fire agencies. Those restrictions included campfires except in developed campgrounds, no smoking except in enclosed vehicles or buildings, metal cutting, grinding, welding and discharging of fireworks, firearms and certain kinds of ammunition. The fire danger in Castle Valley reached “very high” for a short period of time but has stayed mostly at “high” fire danger, and the average trend is to slowly start declining in August.

But that doesn’t mean that we are anywhere near “out of the woods” of having a destructive fire in Castle Valley. We still have an above-average amount of tall, dry vegetation and we have many acres of it just waiting for some kind of an ignition. It wouldn’t take very much to get a fire started, and a fire here could travel very fast and quickly get out of control. We must still remain vigilant and hope for no dry thunderstorms like we had earlier this week.

Every year is a little different in one way or another. I still vividly remember a summer 25 years ago when there seemed to be a rash of fires around the area other than the immediate Castle Valley area. I was still working a regular job at The Times-Independent and was also employed as a school bus driver for the Grand County School District. On this particular day I had just finished printing the last section of the newspaper and was busy with another printing project when my other employer called. I was asked if I could grab a school bus and proceed to the Book Cliffs and bring a fire crew back to Moab for the BLM. No one else was available to do it, I was told. It sounded simple enough. “I should be back by early evening,” I reasoned.

When I was checked out at the local BLM office by Ron Pierce and issued a radio and had signed a bunch of papers, Pierce casually mentioned that the bus and I were property of the U.S. Government and we could be sent anywhere in the world. We sort of laughed it off, but in the pit of the stomach I knew he was right, and because of my experience with the U.S. Army, I knew it was totally possible. After bouncing around on the maze of roads that exist in the Book Cliffs, I finally met up with the 20-person hand crew who were summoned to Utah from the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho—as abruptly as I was.

They were called to help fight the San Arroyo Fire located near the Utah/Colorado border. But by the time I arrived, plans had changed. They were to spend the night at the Westwater Ranger Station and return to a new adjacent blaze, the Bitter Creek Fire, located closer to Colorado, eight miles north of I-70, instead of going to San Juan County where four new fires had started. At any rate, that few hours on Wednesday afternoon turned into seven miserably hot, windy days, using a borrowed sleeping bag, MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) for food and no toiletries.

The Bitter Creek Fire eventually consumed 3,500 acres and wasn’t totally contained until the following Sunday. It threatened gas wells, pipelines and storage tanks. Seven crews, four engines, one helicopter, two bulldozers and five water tenders were involved in the attack. Agencies involved included the BLM, Utah State Lands, Idaho State Lands, the National Park Service and Grand County.

After the Bitter Creek Fire was contained, the Sawtooth crew spent the day in a base that had been set up because of all of the fire activity that was happening all around the country. There were lightning fires east of I-70, a fire near Professor Valley and Lisbon Valley, two fires near the La Sal Mountains, another fire somewhere called the Adobe Fire, and a fire near the Westwater exit not far from base camp. It was a hectic week but when the weather changed, the base camp was eventually dismantled and all of the support teams were reassigned to the Moab area. My Sawtooth crew went back to the Westwater Ranger Station for stand-by. I finally went back home to a hot shower, soft bed, hot food and a resolve to be better prepared the next time the call came.