When firefighter Jason Kirks arrived at the Pack Creek Fire last Wednesday afternoon, the blaze had just begun but was already gaining intensity and complexity. An evacuation order for the Pack Creek subdivision had just been issued, and residents were leaving the area; thick vegetation along the riparian corridor was carrying intense fire and heat, with trees torching and fire spreading through the tree canopy. Crews on scene were calling for more resources—firefighters and equipment—to tackle the blaze. Winds and temperatures were high; humidity in the air and moisture in the plants were low.

As of 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 16, the Pack Creek Fire in the La Sal Mountains above Moab has reached 8,453 acres, and is estimated to be 26% contained. It’s been burning for just over one week, and has resulted in the loss of 10 structures, all in the Pack Creek subdivision adjacent to the day-use area where an unattended campfire started the blaze.

First shift

“Coming into this, I realized I needed to get people in place so that we could maintain span of control over all of our resources and keep people safe and tactically organized, and then also come up with ways to focus on structure protection and possibly stop the fire,” said Kirks, the fuels program manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah.

Kirks is also a qualified “Type 3” Incident Commander within the Incident Command System, an interagency protocol that helps first responders quickly establish roles and command hierarchies to meet an evolving emergency. The initial Pack Creek Incident Commander, or IC, asked to have the fire “upgraded” from the less-complex Type 4 classification to a Type 3 fire, and handed leadership over to Kirks, who said that it was soon clear that crews were not going to be able to stop the fire from spreading.

“Because of the intensity, the extreme drought conditions that we’re in, the dryness of the fuels plus the wind—basically everything was against us to try and put the fire out at that time, so we immediately focused on protecting structures,” said Kirks.

He ordered more resources through the fire dispatch center and delegated tasks among responders, assigning leaders in charge of operations and structure protection. Air resources were directed to drop fire retardant to reduce the fire intensity enough for engine crews to be able to engage and stop the spread. These tactics were successful in saving several structures in the Pack Creek subdivision that were threatened at the time, Kirks said. However, the high-intensity fire behavior continued, with spot fires pushing the fire boundaries. At around 7 p.m., winds that had been pushing the fire uphill changed direction and began pushing the blaze down through the canyon. This kind of wind shift often occurs due to heating and cooling cycles throughout the day combined with steep, mountainous terrain. The fire was now running “through the community—right through Pack Creek,” said Kirks.

“I put in a call to dispatch to get every structure engine in this part of Utah that we could get out here,” he said. “They showed up pretty quick. We had Moab Valley Fire Department, we had Thompson, Green River, Monticello, Blanding, basically every volunteer fire department we could round up.”

Crews continued directing retardant drops from aircraft while fire engines went out ahead of the flame front to pre-treat structures with water. The fire was too intense to be stopped, and too dangerous for crews to engage directly. After doing what they could to prepare the structures, firefighters let the flame front pass through, then immediately re-engaged to put out any buildings that had ignited, minimizing damage.

“Unfortunately, the first night there was one home—we couldn’t get across the drainage to get to it in time. That was the only structure that we lost that night,” said Kirks.

Increasing complexity

At around 10 p.m., Kirks could see that the scope of the fire was growing beyond the capabilities of local resources.

“I did my complexity analysis, and I decided early that this had the potential to go a lot bigger, especially with the predicted conditions: with the winds, the red flag warnings, the heat, where the fire was located, being at the base of the La Sals.” The weather predictions for Thursday, the day following that initial response period, indicated another round of high temperatures and high winds. Steep terrain and thick vegetation in the mountains were sure to present further challenges to firefighters in the coming operational shifts.

“So we ordered a Type 2 team,” said Kirks, referring to the next-higher level Incident Management Team within the Incident Command System. “We saw that this was going to be something that we weren’t going to be able to control… we have limited resources in this part of Utah, and we had already maxed out almost all of our fire resources.”

A Type 2 team is a nationally recognized and deployed team organized into a suite of roles necessary to manage a long-term incident. In addition to leadership, strategy, and operations staff, the team includes staff devoted to areas like logistics and supplies, medical needs, mapping, payroll, and check-in and check-out for personnel assigned to the fire. The Pack Creek team’s incident base is set up at the Old Spanish Trail Arena, which is currently closed for recreation.

Assembling a Type 2 team is no small feat. Though the members are assigned ahead of time, they may live and work all across the Great Basin Geographic Area, a boundary used by the National Interagency Fire Center to coordinate fire resources, that encompasses Utah and Nevada as well as parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Arizona. Firefighters are trained for rapid response, however, and the team was able to arrive in Moab by Friday and assume command of the Pack Creek Fire on Saturday.

Before that, however, Kirks continued to head the Type 3 team on Thursday during severe fire conditions. Before leaving on Wednesday he delegated a night IC, and some crews stayed on the fire overnight, when fire activity is generally more moderate. The next day, however, the intensity resumed. Night crews requested more help early that morning, and the extreme weather forecast began to play out later in the day.

“By 11 o’clock on Thursday, a wind was picking up, we kept getting flare-ups in the community, we were again chasing fire right through Pack Creek,” said Kirks. “The winds were so high that we had to cancel aircraft.”

Though there were helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft with retardant assigned to the fire, the strong winds, especially over the complex, mountainous terrain of the La Sals, made it too dangerous for those crafts to fly during most of the day.

“It would exceed the capabilities of that aircraft and it had the potential for something going wrong,” explained Kirks.

During breaks in the wind, helicopters were able to make short flights to drop buckets of water in the Pack Creek area, where firefighters again focused on structure protection. In total, four primary structures and six outbuildings were lost in the Pack Creek community, and five primary structures were damaged by fire, according to a June 11 update from Rachel Wootton, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Moab and Monticello. Meanwhile, the fire made a 4,500 acre run up through the mountains that afternoon, driven by wind and terrain and fueled by thick, dry brush.

Grand and San Juan county sheriff’s deputies issued evacuation orders and road closures to ensure public safety; structures along the La Sal Loop Road, such as the Buried Hatchet subdivision and Morris’s Last Resort, are evacuated but so far untouched by the fire. Private lands in the Blue Lake and Dark Canyon areas have been evacuated and crews are implementing structure protection measures on properties in those areas.

Road closures remain in effect until at least July 1, including much of the La Sal Loop Road, the La Sal Pass Road, and roads to Warner and Oowah lakes. Much of the La Sal Mountains are closed to recreation.