“I know people are curious about timelines—when the fire will be contained, when it will be done,” said Tim Roide, current Incident Commander of the Pack Creek Fire, at a June 15 virtual public information meeting. “It’s very difficult to put an estimate on that. I can tell you it isn’t going to be in the next three to five days… we are looking at weeks, multiple weeks, likely, before the fire is brought to containment.”

In an interview with the Moab Sun News, Pack Creek Fire Information Officer Nick Howell said he expects that forest road and trail closures, which are currently in place until at least July 1, will last a month or more, and that areas of the La Sals will continue to put up smoke throughout the rest of the summer.

Roide and Howell are both part of the 50-person Type 2 Incident Management Team that, as of Saturday, June 12, has taken over management of the 8,400-acre fire. As of Wednesday, June 16, the fire 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.

Fire impacts

Fire managers updated the public on the current fire status: there are over 45 miles of fire perimeter that must be secured, and much of the terrain is steep and rugged. Heath Cota, Operations Section Chief, addressed four particular areas of the fire.

In the Pack Creek area, where the fire started, Cota said the team has focused efforts on structure protection and restoration of power to the residents of the Pack Creek subdivision. Much of the Pack Creek area has been contained and mopped up, and evacuation orders have been lifted for lower Pack Creek residents. Cota said he hopes the evacuations for the upper part of Pack Creek can be lifted within 72 hours, once more of the fire has been secured.

In the Brumley Creek area, Cota highlighted the Buried Hatchet and Whispering Oaks developments. Steep and rugged terrain in Brumley Creek has hindered containment efforts along the fireline below these developments.

“We’ve had to move very slow and very methodical to do this safely,” Cota said. Using this approach, firefighters have been able to construct handline through much of that part of the fire perimeter.

The active part of the fire has moved closer to Oowah Lake, and Cota described firefighters’ response:

“We got real aggressive with our aviation resources, and we were able to reprioritize some crews and resources to… start taking action on this fire as it continues to push down towards Oowah Lake,” he said. He hopes crews will be successful in using natural fire barriers to steer the fire away from the Oowah Lake campground.

The last area he highlighted was Geyser Pass. A structure protection group is assessing and developing protection plans for homes and other buildings on the east side of Geyser Pass—evacuation orders have been issued for the Blue Lake and Dark Canyon areas. Crews are also using natural barriers and expanses of sparse fuels to establish an anchor point from which to defend the area should the fire push further east over the pass.

Brian Murdock, Recreation and Trails Manager for the Moab/Monticello Ranger District of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, reported on the status of various recreational values. Infrastructure around Warner and Oowah lakes has not been impacted so far by the fire, he said, and most of the popular Whole Enchilada mountain biking route has not been impacted, other than the Geyser Pass to Burro Pass section. However, parts of the Trans-La Sal Trail have been burned. Fire reached Boren Mesa, and the forest’s avalanche communications tower has burned down.

“All the trails around Dark Lake and Moonlight Meadows had fire over them… some things will be different when we’re able to get back on those trails,” Murdock said.

Extreme conditions

Roide emphasized the challenging conditions that Pack Creek firefighters face.

“It’s only the second week of June, but we have fuel conditions up on the mountain that haven’t been seen for 90 years,” he said. “We have record heat and record dryness, and it’s a tough piece of real estate—the La Sals are beautiful, but we have to be very meticulous… about how we approach this. Firefighter safety is number two, behind public safety.”

Cota noted that rugged terrain, the volatile condition of fuels that have been stressed by drought, and standing dead trees, called snags, in the high forested areas all present challenges and hazards to crews.

In an interview with the Moab Sun News, Howell went into further detail on some of the factors contributing to the intensity of the Pack Creek Fire and challenges firefighters face in containing it.

No Southwest resident will be surprised to hear drought cited as a factor in wildfire intensity, as the ongoing drought has triggered a state of emergency in Utah and the extreme conditions region-wide have been acknowledged by resource managers, policy makers, and media outlets.

“It is extremely dry. We are literally into uncharted territories,” said Jason Johnson, the Southeast area manager for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, at the June 15 meeting. It’s also hot: current temperatures are exceptional, with highs forecasted above 100 degrees throughout the week. Those conditions are helping to drive fire activity.

Howell said that in high elevations like the upper sections of the Pack Creek Fire, usually the relative humidity of the air will rise to between 25 and 35% at night, causing fire behavior to mellow during those hours.

“Since we took the fire on Saturday, the humidity has stayed around 3 to 5%,” said Howell, expressing hope that the nighttime RH recovery will improve later in the week.

The ongoing drought has parched natural vegetation. Though the mountain vegetation looks green, the moisture content of trees and brush is unusually low for this time of year—land managers know because they monitor fuel moistures on a regular basis. In a typical protocol, Howell explained, technicians collect samples of different types of vegetation from specific monitoring locations at different elevations on a schedule throughout the season. They weigh the fresh samples, then dehydrate them in a special oven for 24 hours. The weights of the samples after this process reveal the moisture content of the live fuels. Fuel moistures statewide, Howell said, have reached record lows.

In addition to being dry, the vegetation is extremely thick, particularly in the upper elevation areas of the fire.

“We’ve been suppressing fires for so long, we’ve actually, in a way, created the problem, because there’s so much vegetation out there,” said Howell.

When fire is allowed to cycle through ecosystems at natural intervals, underbrush and dead material are regularly consumed and cleared out, and future fires are in turn moderated by reduced fuel loads. However, for decades, land management agencies employed a “full suppression” strategy for all fires, before more research indicated that fires are an integral part of a healthy ecosystem. Now, overgrowth and over accumulation of dead fuels make fires more intense, more harmful, and more dangerous.

All these factors add up to extreme fire behavior.

“We’re only in June, and the fire behavior we’re seeing is pretty typical of what you would see in August,” said Howell, describing 200 foot flame lengths in the timber and fire traveling through the upper tree canopy, called a crown fire. Crown fires advance the firefront rapidly, but they also generate another concern—firebrands, or floating pieces of burning debris, can drift on the wind as far as two miles from the main fire and ignite spot fires. If crews are working between the main fire and one of these spot fires, they could get trapped between the flames. That concern, as well as the steep slopes and cliffs throughout the fire area, make it difficult to find places where fire crews can safely engage the fire. Some areas have been accessed by aircraft, dropping off crews who remain camped for days close to their work sites, resupplied by aircraft.

Fire restrictions and cautions

Fire and land managers implored the public to respect evacuation and closure orders, and also to be extremely careful with campfires and thorough in putting them out. Stage 1 fire restrictions will go into effect on June 18, and will prohibit campfires outside of permanently constructed fire rings in developed areas.

“My staff, both in recreation and in fire fuels prevention, do come across many dozens of abandoned campfires on a yearly basis,” said Michael Engelhart, district ranger for the Manti-La Sal National Forest, urging the community to be careful, to carry fire extinguishing tools and supplies like shovels and extra water when recreating in the mountains, and to apply those tools if they see abandoned campfires.

Moab Bureau of Land Management Field Office Manager Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt agreed, saying her staff also encounter abandoned fires on BLM lands throughout the year. FFSL representative Johnson echoed the point, adding of fire restrictions,

“No matter what it says on a piece of paper hanging in the post office, there’s no substitute for judgment and for discernment.”