Plume of smoke from the Murphy fire in Moab, Utah

At 2:05 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, the Moab Valley Fire Protection District was dispatched to a fire in the Pack Creek Mobile Home Park. A thick black column of smoke piled into the hot afternoon sky as crews from several agencies responded. The blaze and smoke had subsided within hours, but six homes were destroyed and another four were damaged. The only injury reported was heat exhaustion experienced by a public safety employee not fighting the fire. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

“It was absolutely amazing, everybody was there,” said Cathy Bonde, who does administrative work for the Moab Valley Fire Protection District and also lives near the site of the fire.

Firefighters from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service assisted city volunteer crews; law enforcement officers from the Moab City Police Department, Grand County Sheriff’s Office, and National Park Service helped evacuate residents and manage traffic and road closures; crews from utility companies were on site as well.

At the June 7 Grand County Commission meeting, Commission Chair Jaques Hadler thanked all the responders and expressed his sympathy for those whose homes were destroyed.

“Other than losing a loved one, losing a home is one of the most traumatic things you can go through,” Hadler said. The commission distributed small tokens of gratitude to personnel who responded to the Murphy Fire. Maureen Cain, a co-owner of the mobile home park, also thanked the responders at the meeting, and expressed relief that no one was seriously hurt.

Support

There are about 30 homes in the Pack Creek Mobile Home Park. By June 7, residents whose homes were not damaged were able to return home. Meanwhile investigation into the cause of the Murphy Fire continues. Bonde said officials from the State Fire Marshal’s office have been on site and investigators have used drones to map the fire.

“Moab Valley Fire, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office and the Utah State Fire Marshall continue to actively investigate the fire,” according to a June 6 press release from the Moab Valley Fire Protection District.

Officials did not have a total count of how many people are currently displaced. A representative from the Grand County Sheriff’s Victim Advocate Office said people affected by the fire will likely need two phases of support, with the initial phase covering shelter and basic needs while people are unable to return to their homes.

“Down the road there’s going to be the need for longer-term support for people who’ve lost their homes entirely,” he said. There are few homes for sale or rent in Moab, and even fewer that are attainable for middle and low income earners. Property cleanup will also be a substantial task.

The Aarchway Inn has set aside a block of rooms for people displaced by the fire. The Moab Seventh-day Adventist Church has set up a fund for donations, 100% of which will be directed towards people in need due to the fire. Donations can be made through their website, adventistgiving.org: click “Donate” in the upper right-hand corner, choose the Moab Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and select “Mobile home park fire – Pack Creek Mobile park on Murphy Lane” as the recipient of your donation. Donations to the same fund can also be made through Zions Bank. There is also a link to donate on the home page of the county’s website, grandcountyutah.net. Displaced community members in need of assistance should contact the Grand County Victim Advocate Office.

Wildland urban interface

The mobile home park is on the same property as the Pack Creek Campground, which abuts Pack Creek. The Moab Valley Fire Protection District press release says crews established a containment line around the fire upon arrival that prevented its spread into the campground or creek bed.

“They were able to get there and contain it right away,” Bonde said. “The biggest fear was that something would spark in the creek and it could have turned into something much more detrimental.”

Much of Pack Creek is thick with brush that could easily quickly carry fire to other areas and neighborhoods. Areas like this are known as wildland/urban interface: areas where human infrastructure and natural areas are next to each other and fire can spread between them. The Murphy Fire was contained to 2.5 acres, one acre of which had homes on it.

Other fires in the Moab area over the past several years have started around the same time of year, notably the Pack Creek Fire. That incident began last year on June 9, ignited by an abandoned fire in a picnic area above the Pack Creek subdivision, miles upstream from this week’s Murphy Fire. Thick vegetation in the creek bed, combined with strong winds and dry conditions, contributed to the severity of that fire, which destroyed several structures and eventually spread into the La Sal Mountains, burned for weeks, and grew to nearly 9,000 acres.

In 2019, a resident on Arbor Court was burning yard waste and unintentionally ignited a small wildfire on June 13—about a half mile, as the crow flies, from this week’s Murphy Fire. The Arbor Drive fire was quickly contained and damaged only one house, but it again butted up against Pack Creek. And in 2018, the infamous Cinema Court Fire, which destroyed eight homes and three other structures, started within about a mile of this week’s fire, on June 12.

“Before this date, we all need to start being extra careful,” Bonde said, noting that Stage 2 fire restrictions on public and county lands went into effect on June 2. Those restrictions prohibit fires in both designated and nondesignated campgrounds; smoking in any area except inside an enclosed vehicle or building or developed recreation site or paved area free of vegetation; fireworks; exploding targets; steel-core or jacketed ammunition; and cutting, welding, or grinding metal in vegetated areas.

The restrictions apply to state lands and unincorporated private lands, BLM lands in the Moab and Monticello field office areas, national parks, and Forest Service lands in Grand and San Juan counties. They were implemented in response to “hazardous fire conditions due to prolonged drought and extremely dry vegetation,” according to a May 27 Utah Interagency Fire press release announcing the restrictions.

Efforts to reduce fuels along both Pack and Mill creeks have been going on for years. Kara Dohrenwend, director of nonprofit Rim to Rim Restoration, and Duncan Fuchise, Southeast Wildland Urban Interface Coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands, presented at the June 7 Grand County Commission meeting on fuel reduction projects. (The presentation had already been scheduled; its coming on the heels of the Murphy Fire was a coincidence.)

Land managers, nonprofits and community leaders have partnered with veteran-led disaster response organization Team Rubicon to undertake a multi-year fuel reduction project in Pack and Mill creeks called Operation Slickrock. The project was prompted by the Cinema Court fire, and crews have returned each spring to clear brush to create fire breaks in locations along the creeks. This spring, volunteers cleared about nine acres of brush along the creeks. Dohrenwend said she was at the Pack Creek Mobile Home Park helping a friend during the fire, and could see one of the team’s fuel breaks from the site. Landowners with property along Pack Creek interested in participating in Operation Slickrock in the future may call Duncan Fuchise at (435) 210-4328.

Anyone with pertinent information about this week’s Murphy Fire is encouraged to call the Grand County Sheriff’s office at (435) 259-8115.