Report explores what went wrong last year when dual wildfires nearly overran two Utah towns

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Bald Mountain Fire burns in the hills above Woodland Hills on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Freaky weather conditions unleashed by climate change and “never seen before” in Utah’s highlands are making wildfires more difficult and dangerous to control because fire managers’ experience is becoming increasingly irrelevant for predicting the behavior of blazes.

That’s a key takeaway from a new analysis of one of the most threatening wildfires in Utah history. Last year’s Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires started with lightning strikes two weeks and 6 miles apart around Mount Nebo and persisted as tiny blazes that U.S. Forest Service officials opted against stomping out as they burned harmlessly for several days last September.

Until, that is, unrelenting high winds kicked the flames into high gear.

The political fallout in the wake of what became the Pole Creek/Bald Mountain “megafire” was radioactive, fraught with second-guessing and even calls for criminal charges against federal officials for allegedly “letting” the flames get out of control.

The review of officials’ handling of the fires, however, did not fault forest managers for their fateful decisions, indicating they made appropriate calls, given the information available at the time, the need to avoid putting firefighters at risk, and their history of harnessing unplanned wildfires to improve forest health and reduce fire risk.

“They did it with the best of intentions and with a lot of expertise from working on the landscape for years,” report co-author David Calkin, an economist with the service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont., said in an interview. “All the signals for these people and their expertise was the fire season isn’t going anywhere. ‘Let’s get some resource benefit and not put our people in harm’s way.’”

Forest managers lost control of the blazes because of an onslaught of wind that was far out of the norm for that late in the year — when fire season is normally coming to an end, according to the 76-page “facilitated learning analysis” released this month by the Forest Service. Ceaseless hot, dry winds fanned the seemingly innocuous flames into a many-tentacled firestorm that came perilously close to destroying two hillside subdivisions.

The two fires merged and blackened 120,000 acres, many scorched to the point that damaged watersheds could take years to recover and shed dangerous debris flows into the communities of Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge.

Thanks to a massive retardant bombardment, hundreds of firefighters on the ground and a measure of luck some dubbed a “miracle," no homes or lives were lost. The Forest Service spent at least $30 million trying to stop the fire that had invaded Spanish Fork, Payson, Loafer and Diamond Fork canyons.

Such expenses now monopolize forest budgets, leaving little for restoration projects that could reduce wildfire risks and help manage recreation.

Safety first

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A helicopter flies over the Pole Creek Fire near Elk Ridge on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Twelve experts from around the country helped write the draft report, which was completed by a four-member team led by Sue Stewart, director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service’s Intermountain region headquartered in Ogden.

The reviewers agreed the fires, particularly Bald Mountain, would have been difficult or dangerous to aggressively suppress in their early stages and they appeared to pose minimal risk to private property, structures, campgrounds, utility infrastructure and other assets worth protecting. The composition of the surrounding vegetation, late time of year and recent precipitation led managers to expect the Bald Mountain blaze to go out on its own, just like several other fires that summer, the analysis said.

The main driver to not suppress Bald Mountain directly was firefighter safety, one manager told reviewers. The steep, remote terra was filled with hazards, such as standing dead trees and loose rocks, so managers “monitored” the fire for nearly three weeks.

While the new report conspicuously avoids casting blame for the catastrophic fire, it did conclude the unwanted outcome exposed problems with how fire-management decisions are made and how plans are communicated across agencies.

The Pole Creek/Bald Mountain fire “demonstrated the need for a structured, risk-informed decision-making process,” the report said. “There is no national process to follow. Consequently, while the decisions made may have been sound risk-management decisions, it is difficult to document this and be fully transparent with our partners and the public.”

It also suggested improvements in how forest managers use so-called “red-green maps,” preseason planning documents that identify areas on a forest where it could be appropriate to coral or just observe a fire, rather than knock it down right away.

“There has been a lot of success using those maps. We have accomplished a lot of good allowing fire to perform its natural role," said Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “There is always a risk every time you decide to not fully suppress a fire. You take a risk that the fire could escape and there could be an unwanted outcome.”

Climate change

Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune Payson Canyon, pictured here on April 25, 2019, burned in Utah County's megafires last summer. Brigham Young University researchers have initiated a five-year study of runoff from a 144,000-acre area burned in the Pole Creek, Bald Mountain and Coal Hollow fires.

Managing fires in the West now is more complicated due to drought and anomalous weather driven by climate change, according to Calkin, the report’s co-author.

High fuel loads, overgrown stands and beetle-killed trees have further hampered forest management and eroded forest health, making these areas more prone to burn and blazes harder to manage. Encroaching residential development along the forest margins also changes the picture, which bears little resemblance to wildfire management 30 years ago.

“We have no easy options,” Calkin said. “We are putting forest managers into this challenging environment, where the easy thing to do is to suppress all fires. But we know the consequences of going down that path.”

These consequences include escalating cycles of catastrophic fires, fueled by deadwood accumulating on forest floors and declining health of woodland ecosystems that historically relied on recurring low-intensity fires to thin stands.

Many federal managers would like to see natural fire back on the landscape. It is not possible to mechanically treat millions of acres of overgrown forest, so unplanned fires should be considered when practical and safe, Calkin reasoned.

Critics suspect this approach enables the Forest Service to manage landscapes without producing environmental documentation or seeking public input.

Calling the Pole Creek/Bald Mountain report’s conclusions “complete gobbledygook on an epic scale,” independent forest management consultant Frank Carroll contends legal authority does not exist for the Forest Service to use unplanned fires to achieve resource objectives.

“There is no oversight, no public input, and no way for private landowners and others to have any say in fire management tactics or strategies,” Carroll, a former public information officer for the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota and Wyoming, wrote in a recent white paper. “The environmental impacts of this new order of natural resource management by wildfire are unknown, undocumented, and not subject to the influence of public comment and public review, nor are they governed by environmental laws and regulations.”

Sticking with the strategy

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter drops water on the Bald Mountain Fire near Woodland Hills, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

He attributed the Pole Creek/Bald Mountain outcome to Uinta-Wasatch-Cache managers’ pro-fire bias and failure to heed weather forecasts.

Carroll noted the Pole Creek incident commander, who was not from Utah, requested aerial support and an elevated “Type II” response a few days before that fire blew up Sept. 12 but was overruled by Uinta-Wasatch-Cache Supervisor Dave Whittekiend.

A “key state partner” also refused to endorse Whittekiend’s strategy once the winds arrived earlier that fateful day.

“With the forecasted winds, [the state official] believed that the [incident management team] should be in a full suppression strategy,” the report said. “The strategy was not changed and the direction remained confine/contain.”

A few hours after that decision, “Pole Creek blows up,” the report stated, followed by the Bald Mountain Fire as winds howled out of the south at 50 mph.

Had forest managers elevated the level of attack on Pole Creek on Sept. 10, as the incident commander had requested, it is possible they would not have lost a handle on it two days later. At the time, the blaze was being handled as a “Type IV” event, calling for the lowest level of resources.

With the information he had at the time, Whittekiend believed a Type II escalation would have been overkill.

“It was our understanding that it was a 25-acre fire and growing to 75 acres. That is not the size that we typically would consider [for] a Type II team,” Whittekiend said in an interview. “It would be better to go to a Type III, which is what we ended up doing.”

If anything was learned, it was that forest managers no longer can safely rely on their “intuition” and past experience to make decisions that minimize risk, the report suggests. Too much has changed both on the ground and with weather patterns, where anomalies are the becoming the new normal.

The most telling anomaly during the Pole Creek/Bald Mountain debacle was the “whiplash” in the forest’s “energy release components,” or ERC index, a measure of combustibility. Two inches of rain left the mountain damp before an 11-day onslaught of red-flag days. In the span of about two weeks, the ERC index shifted from 20-year lows for that time of year to 20-year highs. No one thought such a swing possible, Calkin said, because it had never been observed.

Another key finding was terms used by fire managers — such as “confine/contain,” “monitor,” “modified suppression" — don’t have agreed-upon meanings across agencies, leading to misunderstandings that may have undermined the response.

Whittekiend found the report’s findings “valid.”

“We are looking to roll these themes into how we manage fire this season. We are putting forward a better strategy for informing partners. We will describe what we are going to do and not leave it to others to interpret what terms like “confine/contain’ mean,” Whittekiend said. “A big part is to get more intelligence resources, folks who can do more in-depth fire-behavior analysis. It’s getting more and better information and running better models."

The report concluded the forest managers’ language led to confusion about intent, objectives and outcomes, both inside and outside the agency.

"This lack of clarity seems to have been driven by the use of vague terminology,” the report said. “We heard misunderstanding and confusion around these terms. We heard it from firefighters, we heard it from partners, we heard it from public affairs, and we heard it from agency administrators.”

But this much, the report shows, is clear: How best to respond to forest fires is becoming increasingly unclear.