BRYCE CANYON CITY – Visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park and residents of Bryce Canyon City, Tropic and surrounding areas awoke to smoke-filled communities and obstructed views of the famous national park Thursday morning due to a controlled burn of nearly 2,000 acres adjacent to Bryce Canyon started by the U.S. Forest Service Wednesday .
Because of past complaints from residents, businesses and visitors regarding ongoing controlled burns that have impacted the area year after year, the U.S. Forest Service decided to burn the vast majority of the load in one day – a decision that resulted in a fire so large that many thought the forest service had lost control of it.
Smoke was heavy throughout the surrounding communities.
Jean Seiler, director of marketing for Ruby’s Inn in Bryce Canyon City, said he was feeling the effects Thursday, 24 hours since the prescribed burn began. He said:
It was a long night last night trying to get sleep with all this smoke. Everybody’s pretty worn out today. It’s frustrating because this has been going on for years, but the really sad part is how much this impacts our visitors. They have no way to plan for it. Everything is smoky. They can’t sleep at night.
Some of these visitors, especially the foreign guests, have waited their whole lives to come and enjoy one of nature’s wonders just to get here and not be able to see it. We have had to refund for the hotel, the campground, our horseback rides and ATV tours.
We realize that the forest service has their job to do. We feel that there is some way to not be using fire all the time and that with the use of mechanical thinning, at least close to the businesses and communities, would be a far better solution. Maybe it’s not a perfect solution, and we could do some testing to see if it is feasible. The air inverts in the evening and the air quality drops at night.
Paul Hancock, district ranger for the Powell Ranger District of Dixie National Forest, said the forest service decided to burn the entire 2,000 acres in a short amount of time this go-round to reduce the number of days local communities and tourists have to suffer the effects and inconveniences associated with the burn. The forest service has been listening to the feedback from the communities and was trying to do its part to be a good neighbor, he said.
He made the final decision and gave the green light for this week’s burn, Hancock said.
One focus of the burn, Hancock said, has been reducing juniper trees, which are invasive, not indigenous to the area and monopolize a great deal of water, forcing native trees and plants to compete for needed water.
The burn is being conducted through both an aerial campaign using helicopters, and on the ground, with fire crews walking the forest floor and spacing out the fire. The fire was spread out in thousands of small, slow controlled burns to eventually burn back in on itself once the fuel is consumed and the fires burn out. A great deal of ground material on the forest floor was burned Thursday.
Community and county objections to the forest service’s prescribed burns are not new. In May 2014, the Garfield County Commission passed a resolution placing a moratorium on prescribed fires in Garfield County. Although the force and effect of the resolution upon the federal agencies may be debatable, the commission later said that the two were working together to address the concerns at that time.
Read more: Commission puts hold on prescribed burns; US Forest Service cooperates – 2014
Besides health concerns, prescribed fires are a disaster for the tourism industry, Commissioner Leland Pollock said in May 2014. There is too large of a risk for the fire to get out of control due to high winds in the area.
Hancock held a town meeting at Bryce Canyon City’s fire station Thursday, to allow residents to voice their concerns and to answer questions.
At the meeting, residents and business owners expressed frustration and outrage at what they say has become an almost annual burning of Dave’s Hollow in the Dixie National Forest just west of Bryce Canyon National Park.
“When we make the decision to burn,” Hancock said during the meeting, “we are going to do it under the best conditions possible because that is going to give us the best chances of meeting our objectives. Believe me, I knew we were going to impact you,” he said, “and I put 34 people on the ground knowing that in doing this we could possibly put their lives at risk, and that is not an easy decision. But we have to remove the excessive fuel and reduce the threat to the forest and the surrounding communities.”
As of Thursday, Hancock said, only about 100 acres are left to be burned, and then the burn will be wrapped up around its perimeter. Weather conditions are forecast to be cooler with a strong possibility of moisture this weekend, which will help bring the controlled burn to an end, he said.
During the meeting, several residents and business owners became upset and said the burns present threats to their health.
Some said members of their community have asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses and are being harmed by the smoke. There were reports of tourists and community members having to seek medical attention as a result of the controlled burn.
“What part of your objective plan do you consider the health and safety of the community that the smoke affects?” Gayle Pollock, executive director for the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association, said. “The plan needs to be changed if it is having an adverse affect on people’s health.”
One specific risk raised involved the Bryce Canyon Ultra Marathon scheduled for Friday. Hancock said the forest service had been in close communication with Matt Gunn, who was responsible for organizing the marathon and said that Gunn had felt there shouldn’t be any real impact on the event.
Tyson Brinkerhoff, owner of Bryce Canyon Inn, however, later told St. George News he was concerned about how the prescribed burn will affect the marathon.
“Depending on which way the wind blows, there are runners who are possibly at risk,” he said.
The running event, which started at 6 a.m. Friday, had over 600 registered participants who have paid $300 each to run in the event.
“Why don’t they burn the other areas that are at a higher density and pose a greater risk?” Brinkerhoff said. “Why do they, year after year, choose to burn Dave’s Hollow and have a total disregard of our health? To give you an idea of how thick the smoke was, I had to come to a stop several times today on the road that leads to the Tropic Reservoirs because the visibility was so low.”
Air quality monitoring
Others wanted to know what the current air quality levels were.
Hancock said the forest service had forgotten to put air quality monitors in place in Tropic, so the forest service didn’t have that information. But, he said, the forest service had called every day to make sure they were going to meet the state’s requirements for air quality. He assured those in attendance that the state of Utah has its own air quality monitors.
Garfield County Commissioner Dave Tebbs said perhaps Garfield County should purchase and put in place their own air monitoring systems so that when air quality becomes too dangerous, the communities could be evacuated.
“You start moving people out of their homes, and I am sure we are going to get the attention from our state and federal leaders,” Tebbs said.
Garfield County Commissioner Pollock asked how the community could influence the forest service’s objectives so the controlled burns do not affect the health and safety of the local communities and visitors to Bryce Canyon.
Hancock cited the National Environmental Policy Act process that sets guidelines for how the forest service operates. NEPA was enacted on Jan. 1, 1970, setting forth national policy promoting the enhancement of the environment.
Alternatives to burns, mechanical means
When the Garfield County Commission issued its resolution in May 2014, it said that mechanical treatment should be done instead of prescribed burning and that a local sawmill could complete the job at minimal cost – a proposition brought up by several people Thursday in the Bryce Canyon communities.
Residents said they were frustrated that the forest service did not do enough to inform them of the prescribed burn in advance. They said the forest service could reduce air pollution by using other means such as mechanical treatment, including logging, to reduce the timber fuel sources.
Hancock said the mechanical means are not as effective, are more expensive and do not offer the same benefits for the forest as fires do.
Tebbs said he understands the necessity of preparing for forest fires and working on a limited budget, but he feels the reintroduction of logging would help alleviate the density the forest service has to contend with in that area.
“There hasn’t been active forest management for a lot of years,” Tebbs said. “This is one of the arguments for the transfer of public lands to the state of Utah. The forests are not being managed to their full potential because the forest service’s hands are tied, in large part, to budget constraints and environmental groups.”
“We have a huge forest right here,” Tebbs said. “If you don’t have timber sales or mechanical thinning and even natural wildfires and have all those components working together, we’ll never stay on top of our forests. We will see our resources depleted and destroyed if we don’t do something about it. We don’t want to clear-cut the forests. We want to selectively control the density of the forest to ensure the health and beauty of the forest.”
A number of attendees at the meeting complained about loss of revenue from tourists canceling room reservations and tours as a result of the fire and smoke.
Marrilee Mecham, of Bryce Canyon Inn, said they lost $800 in revenue from combined cabin and tour cancelations in a single day. She asked if the inn could file for compensation. Hancock said they could not.
Mecham said she couldn’t sleep the previous night because they had smoke detectors going off all night long.
Although Ruby’s Inn suffered thousands in lost revenues, Seiler said his greater concern is for the impact these burns have on visitors who spend their hard-earned money to come visit Bryce Canyon National Park – many from overseas.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic, Assistant Editor Cami Cox Jim contributed to this report.
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