Review shows what went wrong with Utah's Pole Creek, Bald Mountain fires

Review shows what went wrong with Utah's Pole Creek, Bald Mountain fires

(U.S. Forest Service)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A 16-member team from around the nation looked at what went wrong with the response to the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain wildfires last year in the Mount Nebo Wilderness Area of the Wasatch Mountains.

How did two fires, one just 40 feet by 40 feet and the other a quarter an acre, explode to more than a 120,000 acres and cause 6,000 people to flee their homes and businesses?

A "facilitated learning analysis" released Thursday by the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest but performed at the request of regional forester Nora Rasure, of Intermountain Region 4, points to three main problem areas:

  • There was a need for structured, "risk-informed decision-making process. There is no national process to follow." As a result, transparency with the public was difficult.

  • Wildfire terminology is not standardized, leading to miscommunication and confusion

  • Both fires exposed a gap of understanding and expectations of utilizing internal maps that guide if and when direct and aggressive attacks on wildfires are carried out

The report notes that the story of how these remote, high elevation fires that were unlikely to threaten communities or infrastructure were able to explode is an opportunity for firefighting agencies, land and emergency managers to reflect and learn — from across the nation.

In particular, there were assumptions made given rainfall and the timing of the wildfires, which ignited in late August and early September.

"The magnitude of this rain event, combined with the idea that fire season typically slows in early September, reinforced the expectation that fire danger had peaked and would be gradually trending down for the remainder of the season. When the Bald Mountain Fire still had not experienced any significant growth a week into September, this appeared to confirm their expectations that the season was winding down," the report said.

"This scenario speaks to our susceptibility to being reliant on intuition. All of these cues made sense in the moment, but as we now know, a weather and fuel scenario that no one had ever seen before emerged that negated anyone’s prior experience."

The report also stressed the complexity of this particular forest.

"The fire managers on the (forest) are as experienced and professional in complex fire management as in any other area of the country," it said. "If this could happen here, it could happen anywhere."

Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Supervisor Dave Whittekiend said he welcomed the review.

"We’ve already identified some areas where we can do better on this forest," he said. "As other forest officials read through this they will receive some of that information as well. We are learning from this and will try to do a better job in the future."


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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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