A roofed wooden bird blind structure with benches inside was completely consumed by a fire at the Scott and Norma Matheson Wetlands Preserve in the early morning of April 8. [Courtesy Rudy Sandoval, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands]

Firefighters responded to a report of flames at the Scott and Norma Matheson Wetlands Preserve, off Kane Creek Boulevard in the northwest part of Moab at around 2 a.m. on April 8, arriving in time to keep the fire to about half an acre.

While the cause of the fire is still undetermined, there was no lightning activity in the area that could have ignited the flames. The fire completely consumed the structure, intended to serve as a bird-watching spot, as well as damaging a wooden boardwalk leading to the structure. The preserve will remain closed to the public until the area can be safely stabilized.

This latest fire comes on the heels of the preserve being closed to the public due to overuse and misuse of the area.

“It’s very discouraging as a manager,” said Linda Whitham, manager of the preserve, speaking of visitors behaving in careless or deliberately destructive ways.

The preserve is jointly owned and managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and a nonprofit called The Nature Conservancy. Whitham is the Central Canyonlands Program Manager for TNC, and oversees the Matheson preserve in addition to other TNC programs and properties.

She said when she got a call from the fire department about the April 8 fire, she sat down in resignation to hear the details.

“I just thought, ‘Okay, give me the particulars. What happened?’” she told the Moab Sun News in a phone conversation. The preserve has suffered several wildfires over the years, notably in 2008, when a fire thought to be human-caused burned nearly 400 acres in the 894-acre preserve. That fire burned down a bird blind similar to the one that was consumed in last week’s flames; the recently destroyed structure was a replacement installed in 2009.

Abuse of the preserve has become an increasing problem recently.

“We’ve experienced unprecedented safety issues and resource damage including: trash dumping (consisting of dangerous items such as broken bottles and hypodermic needles), graffiti and other vandalism, overnight parking and overnight camping,” said Tracey Stone, a spokesperson for TNC, in a March 29 message announcing a closure.

Whitham noted that along with the rest of Moab and the local national parks, the preserve has seen increased visitation in recent years. She regularly collects sign-in sheets from the trailhead and finds entries from visitors from all over the world, as well as “tons of locals.” While she’s glad to see people enjoying the preserve, she has also observed negative effects from the increase in popularity.

She said she carries out a couple bags of trash every couple of weeks, including beer bottles and cans, fast food wrappers, cigarettes, and this year, masks. She’s found piles of clothing and shoes and drug paraphernalia. Occasionally she finds evidence of camps deep within the preserve, with fire rings constructed amid the thick brush.

“It scares the daylights out of me to see that,” she said, noting how dangerous it would be for a person to accidentally spark a wildfire and be potentially trapped among the vegetation.

She’s also noticed increasing numbers of cars in the parking lot, including sometimes people camping illegally there, perhaps after finding no vacancies in the campgrounds among the popular recreation areas further down Kane Creek Boulevard. Sometimes trucks with large empty trailers are parked in the preserve, leading Whitham to suspect their owners have unloaded recreational vehicles to use on trails off Kane Creek Boulevard, illegally staging their unoccupied vehicles in the lot.

“This parking lot is for people visiting the Matheson Preserve,” she emphasized.

Users regularly bring dogs and bicycles to the wetlands, both of which are prohibited in the area meant to serve as a resting place for wildlife. Whitham said she’s frustrated with many visitors’ disregard for rules and stewardship. With limited staff, it’s difficult to uphold and enforce regulations.

“We have no business being open to the public if we can’t care for this place,” said Whitham.

SUB: Dry fuels, high fire danger

In addition to the higher potential for human-caused ignitions that comes with more visitor use, the vegetation in the preserve has been suffering from long term drought. Moab Valley Fire Chief TJ Brewer said fire behavior at the April 8 incident was not as intense as it would have been had it occurred later in the summer, or during the day, when moisture and humidity levels would be lower and temperatures higher. Still, last week’s fire was intense enough to completely consume the pavilion.

“It was just incinerated. There’s nothing but ash and some hardware there now,” Whitham said of the structure.

According to drought.gov, a project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Grand County, along with much of Utah, is in a state of extreme drought. Under these conditions, the website says, fire danger increases, native vegetation is stressed and streamflow is low.

“Everything has been super dry,” Whitham agreed. That’s an ongoing trend.

“Historically, there were flood events every other year, according to the hydrographs,” said Whitham, but those renewing floods, which are part of the natural wetland cycle and create conditions for native plants to regenerate, aren’t happening as often anymore.

To help the native ecosystem along, preserve managers are trying to bring more water to the wetlands: A native fish nursery project involved widening a channel through which water from the Colorado River flows into the preserve, creating a protected area for young larval fish to thrive. Another aspect of that project involved building a pipeline to bring water from Watercress Spring, on the north end of the preserve, into the central pond so native fish will have more space and more time to grow. [See “Wetlands Recovery,” Nov. 28, 2020 edition. -ed.]

In an April 12 Facebook post, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said that there have already been over 126 wildfires in Utah so far this year, with over 6,200 acres burned. That far exceeds the five-year average for this time of year of 46 starts and 189 acres burned.

“The overwhelming majority have been human-caused,” the post reads. “Conditions are dry statewide!”

SUB: Wildland Urban Interface

The proximity of the Matheson preserve to residential and overnight accommodation properties classifies it as a “Wildland Urban Interface” area, meaning a wildfire could easily spread to nearby developed areas. In some past incidents, neighbors of the preserve have had to evacuate their homes while firefighters contained a blaze in the preserve. The April 8 fire was called in by a neighbor who lives close to the preserve.

“We take it very seriously when we get called down there,” Brewer said of fires at the preserve. He’s helped to fight significant fires there in the past, and knows how intense they can be.

“We were very aggressive on this fire—there’s a history of fires in the wetlands becoming large very rapidly. It’s very heavy fuel load down in that area,” he said, recalling how smoke from those past fires hung in the valley for days, exacerbating asthma conditions for some residents.

To reduce fire danger, preserve managers carry out fuel reduction projects when time and financial resources allow, often in partnership with agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, the local fire department, and conservation corps. Projects may involve removing invasive trees and vegetation or lighting controlled burns to reduce fuel loads.

“Because of the amount of vegetation down there, it’s a potential tinder box,” said Whitham. “Over the years we’ve worked really hard to maintain fire breaks.”

The preserve has a fire plan and coordinates with local firefighters to identify access points to the area. On April 8, two Moab Valley Fire staff and 15 volunteer firefighters responded to the blaze, which they had contained by 10 a.m. that morning.

“I’m thankful that no residential areas have ever been damaged from the fires that took place,” said Whitham. “But it leaves us, as the owners of the preserve, with the aftermath of having to mop up, clean up, stabilize, and rebuild.”

SUB: Rebuilding

It’s unknown when the burned structure will be replaced, or if it will even be rebuilt in the same location. In building infrastructure for the native fish nursery project, Whitham said a new path has been cleared allowing hikers to access the central pond, which is a good place to see waterfowl.

“Right now it’s beautiful out there,” she said. “It’s so exciting to see so much waterfowl and so much water. We built it for the native fish, but we’ve now got this beautiful viewing area for wildlife and waterfowl.”

Whitham said she would consider having the bird blind rebuilt close to the central pond, but securing a contractor, even just to give a cost estimate for the work, has proved difficult.

“I’m just wrapping my head around what to do next,” she said. “We want to open up to the public again…. I’m just feeling discouraged by what took place there.”