Groups work to thin out ladder fuels in Pack Creek

pack creek rim to rim
Crews prepare to thin out so-called ladder fuels on Pack Creek. Photo courtesy of Kara Dohrenwend

Utah Conservation Corps chainsaw crews started work in a dense block of ladder fuels along Pack Creek, between Hunt Creek and Arbor drives – where 50 homes and outbuildings are in the immediate area and where a windblown burning ember could reach one of more than 100 more, according to Kara Dohrenwend, director of Rim to Rim Restoration.

The work began Oct. 30 and the first phase ends Thursday, Nov. 7. Phase 2 calls for removing Russian olive, tamarisk and dead material under cottonwoods along Pack Creek Nov. 11-14.

“The purpose of this work is to reduce the ladder fuel load in the area and begin to restore native riparian plant communities. Ladder fuels are ‘fuels that provide vertical continuity between strata, thereby allowing fire to carry from surface fuels into the crowns of trees or shrubs with relative ease,” said Dohrenwend in an online document.

The Cinema Court Fire in 2018 emphasized how ladder fuels can make a low, fast fire in fine fuels into a catastrophic fire that destroys homes and lives. In October of that year the Moab Valley Fire Department, Forestry, Fire and State Lands, Grand County, the City of Moab, Grand County Sheriff’s Office, and Rim to Rim Restoration hosted an open house with support from the after-school student program BEACON. At the open house, 50 residents shared their concerns, mapped locations where they knew about fire fuels hazards, and gathered information from agency staff on hand. Some of the missing resources for landowners to improve their properties included a lack of knowledge, lack of labor and a lack of wood chipping capabilities, said Dohrenwend.

While creating fire-safe areas around homes is a landowner responsibility, the creeks present a special challenge to fire safety in the community. The dense olive and tamarisk areas in the creeks can carry a small fire into taller trees creating an inferno that throws embers and sparks a long distance, creating spots that can carry fire throughout neighborhoods, said Dohrenwend. The creeks cut through almost every neighborhood in the community, she noted.

Russian olive ladder fuel removal is no small task – an acre can take a crew of five several days to clear a firebreak. Since the creeks are the connecting veins between neighborhoods, clearing these thickets provides multiple benefits including access to evaluate flood flows, reduction in fire hazards, and improved riparian habitat, Dohrenwend said.

In the spring, Team Rubicon is bringing another operation to Moab to help mitigate fire fuels in additional areas while also providing training opportunities for their members. That work will be followed by another few weeks of UCC assistance and follow up. Rim to Rim, FFSL and MVFD will be working over the winter to apply for funds to continue these efforts in 2020, and will be contacting land owners over the next few months to prepare for work by Team Rubicon in the spring, said Dohrenwend.

Rim to Rim Restoration has been working with the fire department during the past 18 months mapping vegetation in the creeks, overlaying that with hydrant locations, neighborhood densities, and other factors like proximity to major roads to determine locations for fire fuels breaks.

Funding for this work is from the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative, a state-organized, partnership-based program in Utah to improve high-priority watersheds throughout the state. Most projects funded through WRI are in more remote locations, but WRI has supported Russian olive and tamarisk removal for riparian restoration along Mill and Pack creeks since 2009. Olive and tamarisk removal is a first step in restoring creek function and improving the habitat in the creek corridor by opening up areas under cottonwoods that used to be more open expanses, and using smaller shrubs such as three-leaf sumac and New Mexico privet for under-stories, along with perennial grass areas.