‘Social distancing is still a thing’; Fire Lake, joining others, to close at parking capacity due to overcrowding

Fire Lake Park, Ivins, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Bob Greely, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Due to overwhelming crowd sizes in recent weekends, visitors to Fire Lake Park can expect the park to close once the parking lot has reached capacity this weekend.

Santa Clara-Ivins Police Chief Bob Flowers told St. George News they have been seeing the same issues as Sand Hollow, Quail Creek and Gunlock state parks, and they’ve been getting a lot of calls.

“We’ve been having a hard time with parking and numbers of people, so we are going to limit the parking just to the parking lot only,” he said.

There are about 40 parking spaces, but he said they might be able to expand that up to 50.

Last weekend, there were cars everywhere, Bob Greely, who lives near Fire Lake Park, told St. George News. On Saturday in particular, the parking lot was jammed with cars and there were vehicles parked alongside Old Highway 91 and on the dirt, some of which was private property.

Pictures from Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane, Utah, on April 25, 2020. | Photo of courtesy Carl Downing, St. George News

“There were probably a couple hundred people up there,” he said.

Greely, who has been living at his residence since before the park was built, said every year continues to get worse with large crowds and loud music. But this year is the worst yet. Greely said they were in touch with the police all weekend, especially about the music that never seemed to stop.

“You know kids are out of school, so much else is closed down, people have been cooped up — we get why people are out there. We’re not trying to say people shouldn’t be there, we’re just trying to say that they need to start controlling it somehow,” Greely said.

Flowers said crowds this size are unusual for Fire Lake Park, but with other locations like Zion National Park being closed, there has been an increase of out-of-state people visiting other areas of Southern Utah, such as Fire Lake and Gunlock.

Litter takes the forefront of this landscape photo shot at Sand Hollow State Park, Hurricane, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Br’ette VanHouten, St. George News

“I’ve never seen so many people out at Gunlock Reservoir, and I’ve lived here close to 30 years,” he said. “It’s been extraordinary crowds. It’s caught us all a little bit by surprise.”

In order to deal with this overflow, officials met Monday to come up with a resolution to the influx of crowds and erratic parking at Fire Lake.

“Our parks are wonderful places to visit, but they’re small,” he said. “It’s easy to get overcrowded and get overwhelmed with it pretty quickly.”

Along with the increase in crowds comes more trash and other messes throughout Fire Lake and other parks, Flowers added.

“We had our park (Fire Lake Park) closed for a while. Our restrooms closed, and what people would do is they’d use the back of the building for the restroom … (and) dump their trash everywhere,” Flowers said. “And we’ve got to keep the quality of our water clean — that’s one of the reasons we’ve restricted pets. We want to keep the parks clean.”

Flowers also commented on the noise complaints saying noise has to be of a significant level in order for anything to be done.

“Just because it’s annoying doesn’t make it illegal,” Flowers said. “That’s what we’re trying to get across to people who live in the area.”

Crowds gather at Gunlock State Park en masse following Utah easing visitation restrictions on its state parks due to the coronavirus, Washington County, Utah, May 2, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

Santa Clara-Ivins Sgt. Reed Briggs told St. George News they did have officers out at Fire Lake Park during the past weekends, but, due to the size of their department, it’s difficult to staff that area full-time.

“Once it got that big and that out of control, all we could do was start writing some citations here and there, but that was about it.”

The citations given out had to do with dogs in the park and people in the park after hours, he said.

Briggs said they have had some busy days in the past, but the complaints with Fire Lake Park are most often about people having dogs out there and a few complaints about alcohol, not necessarily about the size of crowds.

In trying to resolve this issue, Briggs said there has been some discussion about limiting Fire Lake to city/county residents only or charging fees per carload.

“But the problem with that for us is that someone has to be there to monitor it all the time during park hours. Otherwise, there’s just no way to do it,” Briggs said.

Another challenge for managing the park is that the north side of Fire Lake is on the Shivwits Indian Reservation, which means that they have no authority on that side.

Crowds gather at Gunlock State Park en masse following Utah easing visitation restrictions on its state parks due to the coronavirus, Washington County, Utah, May 2, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

“I’m hoping last weekend was an anomaly given everybody’s cabin fever and it being a nice weekend,” Briggs said. “I think the other problem was, with the media and everything, there’s been a lot of talk of the state reopening and certain areas of businesses reopening. And I think we probably just had a few people get a little out of hand with it. I mean, social distancing is still a thing.”

While this is a historical time for parks to be busy, “this is the first time in anyone’s memory that all three water-based parks in Southern Utah came to capacity,” Eugene Swalberg, spokesman for Utah State Parks, told St. George News.

Over the course of the last two weeks, they have made some changes with these parks in order to limit crowds, and they have seen significant improvements, he said.

The current problem is at Gunlock State Park.

Swalberg said the issue isn’t with the main park area, where visitors enter the gate, pay the fee and continue on to launch a boat or go to the beach. That area is well-maintained and allows people to practice social distancing. The issue is with Gunlock Falls, which, like with Fire Lake Park, is not contained, making it much more difficult to manage.

He said they plan to work closer with county officials in order to discuss possibilities of making changes to where people can and cannot park in order to decrease or have better control over the number of vehicles and visitors. But still, it’s not an easy fix.

The Washington County Search and Rescue team responded to the report of an injured woman at Gunlock State Park, Washington County, Utah, May 2, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St.

There is also a presence of danger with Gunlock Falls as the water running over the rock causes it to become slick, making it dangerous for people cliff jumping, such as in the recent incident of a Las Vegas woman being transported on May 2 by Intermountain Life Flight after jumping and landing on an unseen boulder.

“When water is present, you need to use an overabundance of caution when recreating in that area,” Swalberg said. “Some folks choose to cliff jump, which has not been deemed illegal or a prohibited activity. But you need to have a tremendous amount of caution when doing that because there are hazards that cannot be readily seen.”

Swalberg said they continue to follow the federal and state directives. Under these guidelines, recreation is considered an essential service. The directive also encourages people to recreate close to home, he said.

That is still the directive, though it has seen change, such as parks being restricted to county use only.

“Now that is not the case — that it’s just (open) to county residents — we are open to visitors.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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