On the morning of Sept. 6, lightning struck trees at the head of Pole Canyon east of central Utah’s Mount Nebo. Although the flames were not spreading, by the next day the U.S. Forest Service deployed 52 people, including two ground crews, to “confine and contain” a fire that was about the size of a suburban residential lot.

The agency’s plan was not to stomp out the flames burning far from homes but rather to rein in what became known as the Pole Creek Fire.

“They were line-building in what we thought was a safe and effective location,” said David Whittekiend, supervisor for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “The plan was to burn that area out and be done with the fire.”

The blaze could also do some good, clearing out woody debris and improving wildlife habitat, according to fire officials’ postings.

But a Sept. 12 weather anomaly made a mockery of the agency’s calculus when hot, dry winds blasted out of the southwest and showed little letup in the week since. Pole Creek soon became Utah’s largest fire in six years and the biggest in that national forest’s history, continuing to burn northward Thursday into Diamond Fork Canyon, more than 20 miles northeast of the Sept. 6 lightning strike.

Utah politicians — some of them eager to pounce on federal management of the state’s public lands — wasted little time faulting the Forest Service’s handling of the initial response.

“More inept decision-making by the Forest Service who decided to try and ‘manage’ this fire and let it burn instead of suppression — during one of the worst droughts in recent history,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted Sept. 13.

The former Sanpete County commissioner is a frequent critic of federal forest management, which he and many other political leaders have argued makes forests less productive and more prone to destructive fire.

On Wednesday, Cox declined to elaborate on his rebuke.

“He has decided to let the tweet speak for itself,” spokeswoman Kirsten Rappleye said. “He doesn’t want to delve into the policy issues until after the focus is off these families that were evacuated. He is doing what he can to help them.”

Lost in the discussion is fire’s potential to improve landscapes by removing fuels that have built up to unnatural levels after a century of fire suppression.

Fire can be a forest’s friend

“It’s indisputable that fire is an ecological process that lots of forests need. The way the forests function ecologically is largely because of fire,” said fire scientist Carl Seielstad of the University of Montana’s National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis. “Not having fire in these forests has direct consequences on how they look, how they operate and how they respond to climate change. That’s why the feds try to balance fire as a process against fire as an enemy.”

Meanwhile, Cox’s assertion that the Forest Service “let it burn” has been reiterated by residents affected by the Pole Creek Fire and the adjoining Bald Mountain blaze, another lightning-caused fire that the Forest Service decided against attacking.

Forest officials rejected that characterization of their handling of these or any other fire on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache, which covers 2.2 million acres in northern Utah’s Wasatch, Bear River and western Uinta ranges.

“Every fire is a suppression fire. We are going to put out every single fire. It really comes down to the approach that we take. We consider a lot of factors,” Whittekiend said. “We start making decisions based on safety, time of year, fuels, terrain and weather.”

Given the conditions and what seemed like small risks, fire managers made the call, with approval from top forest bosses, to contain the Pole Canyon Fire using a strategy that worked repeatedly over a hot, rainless summer, most recently in the western Uintas on the Murdock and Slate fires.

Crews worked off an existing trail to anchor a line around the north end of the small fire and used drip torches to widen the break in a practice called “blacklining.”

“We were expanding this line when the winds picked up. When the fire made a run, it spotted over a ridge where they were building the fire line,” Whittekiend said. “The fire crews had to withdraw for safety reasons.”

The winds had been forecast, but their high speeds and low humidity, out of the norm for September, caught fire managers off guard that day, Sept. 12. Nighttime temperatures remained high, and by the next day the flames moved all the way down Nebo Creek about eight miles to the San Pitch River.

“We were unable to catch it. It just kept going,” Whittekiend said. “The wind, terrain and the fire all lined up. It pushed them to the northeast and the drainages were aligned perfectly. …. Had we not had that wind, we would have caught these. We have been successful in dry conditions on all other fires, but the wind is a game changer.”

Whittekiend said improving forest health was hoped to be a “byproduct” of the decision to contain the fire, not its motivation.

“If we don’t take some of those opportunities, we will remain in this cycle: Put it out, put it out, put it out, giant wildfire. It’s a cycle we don’t want to be in for perpetuity.”

Scorched acres

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bald Mountain Fire burns in the hills behind the homes in Woodland Hills, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Restoring fire’s place in national forests may be official policy of the Forest Service, but that is cold comfort to the 6,000 displaced by the Pole Creek and and Bald Mountain fires.

As of Thursday, Pole Creek had burned nearly 95,000 acres, spreading north and threatening Hobble Creek. Nearly 1,900 personnel are working the two fires, now considered the nation’s top firefighting priority after a long line of massive blazes in the West this summer. While California fires have claimed 1,400 homes and several lives, no structures have been lost or serious injuries reported in either Utah fire.

The Pole Creek Fire’s spread has reached areas burned in recent days by the Coal Hollow Fire. The three contiguous burn areas cover a combined 144,000 acres, posing a massive rehabilitation challenge for the southern Wasatch. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, is convening a meeting Friday afternoon between elected Utah County leaders and federal officials to discuss post-fire work.

Lightning sparked the Bald Mountain Fire on Aug. 25 near Mount Nebo’s northern ridgeline in designated wilderness.

“We made a decision to monitor this one. It’s at 11,000 feet, it’s in a bunch of dead trees, access is difficult, and on that date it made sense,” Whittekiend said. Few things are more dangerous to firefighters than standing dead tress in steep terrain. Falling snags are a leading killer of firefighters. For nearly three weeks, this fire behaved as expected, showing little progress.

But the same Sept. 12 wind phenomenon that blew up Pole Creek, unleashed Bald Mountain, which bolted down Nebo’s northern drainages and nearly burned into Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge, high-end communities cut into the foothills above Payson. It has now burned nearly 18,000 acres.

Utah’s political leaders often attribute forests’ vulnerability to “catastrophic” wildfires to federal policies that restrict or discourage logging. Scientists say the real culprit is the virtual elimination of fire from Western forests, thanks to the suppression policies of the early to mid-20th century, which led to an unnatural buildup of flammable wood on the forest floor and stands congested with small trees.

“We have a deficit of fire in our forests relative to historical levels before [the era of] fire suppression. We have less fire now,” said California-based forest ecologist Chad Hanson, director of the watchdog organization John Muir Project. “There was always a mix of low, moderate and high-intensity fire. You need high-intensity patches. That doesn’t destroy forests.”

In fact, these severe burns add to forest resilience and create habitat for dozens of wildlife species. Hanson contends political pressure to push logging and suppression in the name of fire protection could result in far worse danger, and divert resources away from making communities safer in fire-prone areas.

Even in the West’s recent seasons of fire chaos, the Forest Service extinguishes the vast majority of blazes early. But the 2 percent that get away have wreaked major havoc, and conditions appear to be worsening as the climate warms and forests dry out.

“We catch 98 percent of all wildfires with initial attack," Whittekiend said. “While that is a point of pride, it is also a bit scary because if we continue to put out 98 percent of all fires the moment we find them, we will find ourselves in this continuous cycle.”

Equipped with shrinking resources that are increasingly diverted to costly fire suppression, Forest Service officials are trying to improve woodlands using natural fire, along with logging, mechanical treatments, thinning and prescribed burns, according to Whittekiend.

“We may use a different strategy and tactic on every fire, but the intention is to put it out using whatever tools we have,” he said. “Up until a week ago, we were very successful and nobody knew.”