Sparked by lightning several days ago, two wind-whipped wildfires burning near the southeastern edge of Bryce Canyon National Park expanded quickly Saturday, forcing some trail closures.
The Lonely and Riggs fires, which merged over the weekend, are now burning out of the park. They are not threatening any communities, but they have disrupted Bryce during its busy fall season.
The park remains open, but the public may not drive beyond the Natural Bridge Overlook during the day. At night, the road closure is a mile farther down the park road at the Far View Overlook.
Closed trails include the Grandview Trail outside the park, as well as the Riggs Spring Loop and the Under-the-Rim trails inside the park.
The Riggs Fire started Aug. 25 in the Dixie National Forest, and, 1.5 miles to the north, the Lonely blaze began Sept. 6 just inside the park. Officials monitored the burn under the Pink Cliffs 10 miles south of Tropic, in rugged terrain with lots of standing dead trees.
“We did not put crews in there to suppress them for safety concerns,” said Mike Johnson, a fire information officer with the National Park Service.
This area has not burned in many years, resulting in an unnatural buildup of woody debris on the forest floor. Federal agencies decided allowing these fires to burn will benefit the land, without putting communities or properties at risk.
“These fires will help to reduce these fuels and return the area to a more natural condition and, in turn, decrease the risks from unwanted fires,” states a new release from the National Park Service.
Officials did act to protect the Rainbow Point trailhead and other park infrastructure at the southern end of the park. Crews used the Bristlecone Trail to start backfires above the Riggs blaze in an effort to secure the Rainbow Point parking area, Johnson said. Mop-up operations continued there Monday, but much of the fire-suppression effort is now focused on Bully Valley.
Both blazes have moved east across a narrow band of national forest land and are now burning on federal land recently removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. As of Monday morning, the fires combined for more than 1,400 acres, although the federal agencies have not boosted their response. Two helicopters, three engines and a 20-member ground crew are working the fire.
Fire managers were scheduled to host a community meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at Bryce Valley High School in Tropic.