It all started when an unknown party abandoned a campfire on June 9 in the La Sal Mountains north of Moab. The seemingly simple act of carelessness sparked a blaze, the Pack Creek Fire, that has now engulfed more than 8,500 acres and is only 30% contained. With excessive heat and ongoing drought gripping the western United States, firefighting crews—comprised of 426 personnel, 11 crews, 11 helicopters and 21 engines—are facing difficult conditions while working to control the wildfire.
Wildfires have become a source of increasing concern in Utah where wildland-urban interfaces (WUIs) extend further into previously undeveloped areas and hot, dry summer months turn unmanaged forest full of built up fuel into veritable tinder boxes. While the state does some admirable work with fuel reduction projects, the Pack Creek Fire—just one of three active and uncontained large fires in Utah—is evidence of how suddenly wildfires can sweep across huge swaths of land once sparked.
As is often the case with natural calamity, it isn’t until something familiar or beloved is threatened that we start paying attention. Such is the case outside of Moab, where access to the world-famous Whole Enchilada trail system, which runs from Burro Pass high in the La Sals all the way down to the Colorado River in town, is on the verge of burning. The Whole Enchilada is the centerpiece of Moab’s mountain biking infrastructure, economically crucial to the area because it draws tourists from around the globe and serves as the destination for myriad shuttle services in town that whisk riders high in the mountains above oppressive summer heat. Some high-altitude trails have already been engulfed, while the remainder of the area remains threatened.
On the historic and literary front, the fire has damaged portions of the Pack Creek Ranch. The ranch, with its bucolic cabins at the base of the La Sals, has hosted well-known authors such as Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Wendell Berry, Amy Irvine, Robert Fulghum, Wallace Stegner and Katie Lee. Actors Robert Duvall, Susan Sarandon, John Wayne and most of the crew of the movie Thelma and Louise made their base at Pack Creek Ranch. Physicist Stephen Hawking and other scientists have all enjoyed the unique setting of Pack Creek Ranch. In 1986 Jane & Ken Sleight purchased the ranch. Ken, a legendary river runner, horseback guide was a good friend of late author Edward Abbey and was the real-life inspiration for “Seldom Seen Smith” a character in Abby’s Monkey Wrench Gang. Although the cabins are now all privately owned, Jane and Ken still live there and lost much in the fire. Friends of the Sleights have started a fundraiser to assist the couple. For more information contact Ken Sanders Rare Books, (801) 521-3819, books@kensandersrare books.
The possible destruction of a popular recreation area isn’t the only devastation to come from the Pack Creek fire, even if it is what’s drawing the most eyes to the issue. Homes have been lost, wildlife habitat torched, and the area’s watershed and air quality compromised. Firefighters have been able to make significant progress in containing the fire over the past 24 hours thanks to slightly lower temperatures and higher humidity. There are now over 55 miles of fireline built along the blaze and no injuries have been reported.
There is a current statewide ban on open fires on all state lands and BLM managed lands in Southwestern Utah. Please be sure to adhere to all current fire restrictions as there is extreme fire danger in much of the state. Hopefully firefighters are able to contain the spread and save Utah’s most famous trail system, which is so vital to the surrounding community. We’ll continue to update this story and track how wildfires affect outdoor recreation, the environment and the economy in Utah this fire season.