Moab celebrated Independence Day with the traditional proliferation of fireworks — some legal and some not.
Residents augmented the municipal display with their own driveway and neighborhood pyrotechnics, but fireworks ignited within city limits may not rise over 6 feet and must be at least 20 feet from any building or combustible material, among other restrictions imposed by a city ordinance passed in June.
The ordinance is in effect until repealed, and violators can face up to a thousand-dollar fine and possible imprisonment. However, that’s not the concern of Moab’s firefighters, who spent the holiday evening waiting for calls and responding to incidents.
Moab Valley Fire Department Chief TJ Brewer said the department responded to about a dozen reports throughout the night of the holiday.
“I think overall it went pretty well,” Brewer said. “… We had two trucks stationed out by the dump when the fireworks ended, and we had about seven or eight fires up there. And then we had fires all over town throughout the night — we were able to jump on them pretty quick.”
Fireworks caused all but one of those fires, with the exception being a fire of unknown cause near mile marker 131 on U.S. Highway 191.
Firefighters work separately from city code enforcers, and Brewer isn’t sure whether any citations were issued over the holiday.
“We’re not a citing agency,” Brewer said, adding, “Some of the fireworks are completely legal, and sometimes accidents just happen.”
The Moab Valley Fire Department has just six paid staff members, and the rest of the load is carried by volunteers. Brewer said there are 34 names on the fire department’s current roster. He is grateful for the dedication of his volunteer force.
“It’s kind of heart warming to see the volunteerism in this community, especially with the firefighters and their dedication,” he said. “Especially on a day when they’re celebrating the Fourth of July, and doing barbecues with their families, to come out and help us out.”
Even aside from Independence Day, the department has been busy.
136 INCIDENTS SO FAR THIS YEAR
Brewer said they responded to about 30 calls just during the week of the Fourth of July, including two structure fires, a garbage fire and a wildland fire near Ken’s Lake. So far this year, the department has responded to 136 incidents. Brewer says the incidents are, for the most part, human caused, with many ignitions occurring while property owners try to burn weeds or garbage.
One such incident occurred on Arbor Court on June 13.
A fire meant to eliminate weeds got out of control and burned over a half-acre of brush and caused between fifteen and twenty thousand dollars worth of damage to a house.
Erinn Looney-Triggs was inside his home when a housemate, who could see the flames from her window, got his attention. He said he grabbed his fire extinguisher and walked outside, but realized right away that the fire had already grown too large.
“I walked out and I saw the entire side yard on fire, and the house on fire, and I set the fire extinguisher down and walked away and called 911,” Looney-Triggs said. “There was nothing that could have been done at that point with what I had.”
Fire trucks were already on their way; Looney-Triggs directed them to the correct address and they arrived quickly.
“Everybody was very prompt in responding, and it sounded like they were scaling this thing appropriately — they were worried this was going to turn into another Cinema Court Fire,” Looney-Triggs said.
The Cinema Court Fire started on June 12, 2018, burning nine homes and displacing more than 100 people. The fire on June 13 was moving through brush in Pack Creek, behind Looney-Triggs’ house, in the same creek corridor that carried the Cinema Court Fire — almost exactly a year to the date.
Fire engines and personnel from multiple agencies arrived and very soon had the fire out.
“They got it out pretty quickly, I would say maybe 30 minutes,” Darci Miller said, who saw the incident unfold from her home across the street. “They responded really, really quickly.”
She had been in her kitchen cooking dinner when a friend, who works in the emergency room at the hospital and was listening to emergency radio traffic, called to ask if she was alright. Miller went outside to see smoke billowing and fire trucks pulling into the street. She directed one of them to the nearest fire hydrant.
“I wasn’t nervous for my stuff, at that point, because they responded so quickly,” Miller said. “The only thing I worry about when there’s fires on that creek bed is that my horses are down there.”
She keeps horses in a fenced area adjacent to the creek.
“But we have such a good fire break that I’m not really worried about the house,” she said.
Not all homes near the creek corridor have a reliable fire break.
Looney-Triggs said he had been worried about the density of fuel behind his home. He’s glad to have some of the fuel cleared out by the fire.
“I think we’re probably better off at the end of this than we were at the beginning of this,” he said. “[The fire] didn’t come inside the house, it’s still livable, nobody was hurt. It could have been so, so much worse than it was. It was just an exciting couple of hours.”
After the Cinema Court Fire last year, the local nonprofit Rim to Rim Restoration hosted a meeting about reducing fuel hazards in Mill Creek and Pack Creek beds. With help from international disaster response nonprofit Team Rubicon, volunteers and city and county crews have created fire breaks in Pack Creek. Clearing fuel from those creeks is still a priority for the fire department. They are also concerned about other areas with a high fuel load.
“It seems like after the Cinema Court Fire, everyone’s focus was the creekbed,” Brewer said. “Which is a huge heavy fuel load, but we also have other areas we’re concerned about.”
He mentioned fields thick with cheatgrass, and overgrowth in the area west of town where the Colorado River canyon opens into the Moab valley, known as the Portal. Fuel reduction projects are outlined in the Community Wildfire Preparedness Plan, which guides local firefighting agencies in fire mitigation.
REDUCE FIRE VULNERABILITY
Community leaders also urge home and property owners to be firewise and reduce their vulnerability to fire. To help residents in this effort, a partnership between Grand County Council, Moab City Council, Moab City Police Department, Grand County Sheriff’s Office, City of Moab, Grand County Emergency Management, Southeast Utah Health Department, Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands, the Moab Valley Fire Department, and Rim to Rim Restoration is sponsoring two free residential waste disposal days at the Moab Landfill on East Sand Flats Road and the Monument Waste transfer station at 2295 S. U.S. Highway 191.
The Moab Landfill will be accepting leaves, grass, and tree limbs for free on July 26 and 27 from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. The transfer station, at 2295 S. U.S. Highway 191, will accept the same materials on July 27 and 28, from 8 a.m. through 4 p.m.
“Reducing fire fuels on your own property is the best way to protect your home from a fire starting or spreading, and makes your home defensible in the event of a fire,” said Kara Dohrenwend of Rim to Rim Restoration (RRR).
RRR’s mission is to restore native plants to disturbed areas in the Moab valley. The nonprofit has also been an active partner in reducing fuels along creekbeds in town. Dohrenwend in particular has donated many hours to community projects.
“My hat’s off to her and the work she’s done,” Brewer said in appreciation. “She’s been doing that for about 20 years, and over the last year or two we’ve really teamed up with her to help her out a little bit. She needs some accolades for sure, it’s pretty neat what she’s done.”
In a press release from the multi-agency partnership sponsoring the free waste disposal days, Dohrenwend gave tips on making a property fire resistant.
“Clear fine fuels (dead grasses and weeds especially) 10 feet from all structures and remove brush piles and lumber piles, and cut dead limbs so that there is a 3-foot clearing from the ground up (especially next to structures),” she said. “Mow that cheatgrass in your back yard, or help your neighbor.”
In addition to removing fuels, people need to be careful with potential ignition sources. Open burning within city limits is prohibited year-round, and as of June 1, open burning throughout Utah is prohibited, including yard waste and garbage. Exceptions can be made under certain conditions for agricultural burns, which require a permit from the Grand County Fire Warden.
Dohrenwend noted other possible sources of ignition in the press release: “Most importantly, be mindful of cigarette butts, barbecues, hanging trailer chains, small engines, sparks of any kind, and any source of fire. Most fires are started by people.”
Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Ty Roberts said drivers should be mindful when pulling off the roadway if they have a flat tire or other emergency.
“Pulling onto dry grass, a hot exhaust can catch the grass on fire and possibly close the highway,” he said. “We encourage people to not drive too far off into the brush in order to not start a major fire.”