Utah hunters upset after area burned by Pole Creek Fire remains inaccessible through end of season

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter flies over the Pole Creek Fire near Elk Ridge, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Utah’s massive Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires are out, but hunters are now getting burned after U.S. Forest Service officials extended closures for a special big game unit.

Citing public safety concerns regarding falling trees and debris flows, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest decided to keep some burned areas in the southern Wasatch Mountains beyond the remainder of Utah’s rifle season.

For many hunters holding cow-elk and mule-deer permits, the move nixes their hunting season and renders their hard-won tags worthless, fumed Springville hunter Spencer Durrant, a popular outdoors blogger.

“We spent three years buying the points [for the drawing]. That’s the area my tag is for. For me and everyone else who has a cow tag for the Central Mountains Nebo unit, we are all [out of luck]. Same with the general season,” Durrant said. “If these were state officials deciding to close it, they would be out of a job already."

The closure might be unnecessary and could have been avoided had the Forest Service put these fires out when they were just a few acres, Durrant argued.

The state issues up to 300 cow-elk tags a year for the unit affected by the burn. Securing such a tag usually requires three or more attempts.

State leaders, including U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney, have previously criticized the Forest Service’s decision to not attack the lightning-triggered Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires with full suppression, accusing the agency of “letting it burn.”

The Forest Service was managing the Pole Creek Fire and observing Bald Mountain when a wind anomaly whipped them into a frenzy Sept 12. For the next 10 days, unseasonably high, dry winds merged the fires and drove the burn north from the east side of Mount Nebo into Spanish Fork and Diamond Fork canyons, blackening 121,000 acres.

Forest officials contend managing the blazes — as opposed to suppressing them — was the right decision with the information they had at the time. High winds, not the prolonged dry conditions, were to blame for the fires’ magnitude.

The day after the fires blew up, the Forest Service closed a large area to ensure the public did not disrupt firefighting activities. That order was to remain in effect through Oct. 15.

The agency re-evaluated conditions on the ground, deciding Friday to extend closures for some areas until Nov. 30, according to Uinta-Wasatch-Cache Forest Supervisor David Whittekiend. Dead trees are liable to topple. Rain could trigger dangerous debris flows, washing out roads.

“It does affect their ability to hunt, but we don’t want to get anyone injured or trapped or get a first responder injured. We need to make sure it’s safe for the public,” Whittekiend said. “There are lots of burned trees right next to roads. We are re-evaluating. Just because it says Nov. 30 doesn’t mean we won’t consider [reopening] before then.”

Utah’s rifle season on elk runs Oct. 6 to 18 this year and Oct. 20 to 28 for deer. In response to the late-season fires that swept across northern Utah mountain ranges, however, the Division of Wildlife Resources extended the season in affected elk-hunting units until Oct. 30, according to Durrant.

The initial closure was little more than an inconvenience to hunters, who would still have had a two-week window to stalk elk on Nebo, Durrant said. But that window slammed shut Friday with the order extending closures.

Hunters such as Durrant spend a year preparing for a limited-opportunity hunt, scouting the terrain weeks in advance. Losing such a coveted opportunity at the last minute stings.

“I hunt to put meat in the freezer," he said. “It is what I live on.”

National forest closures prohibit all entry to popular recreational areas along the Nebo Loop National Scenic Byway, which runs along the east side of Mount Nebo from Payson Canyon to Nephi. They also shut down the Nebo Loop, Mona Pole Canyon and Santaquin Canyon roads to all traffic, not just motorized vehicles. Violations can be punished with a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Diamond Fork Canyon is also closed, but closures were lifted on areas that did not burn on the west side of Bald Mountain, Hobble Creek and parts of Spanish Fork Canyon.