Report released on 120,000-acre fire in Utah

Bald Mountain and Pole Creek Fires south of Provo in 2018

Pole Creek Bald Mountain Fires
Pole Creek-Bald Mountain Fires. Photo from the report.

The Bald Mountain and Pole Creek Fires started last year on August 24 and September 6 respectively about 15 miles south of Provo, Utah in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Both fires were initially managed in a less than full suppression mode — allowed to spread within lines drawn on a map. Rainfall amounts ranging from 1.3″ to 2.3″ on August 25 put a damper on the fire activity, but within days the Energy Release Component had returned to the 90+ percentile range. Meanwhile the area had been classified as in Severe Drought by the Drought Monitor.

The weather changed on September 10, bringing strong winds and a series of Red Flag Warnings causing the two fires to burn together. The final size was 120,851 acres.

Map Utah Pole Creek - Bald Mountain Fire
Map of the Pole Creek – Bald Mountain Fire. Wildfire Today

The Bald Mountain Fire caused mandatory evacuation of two cities: Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills. The Pole Creek Fire triggered mandatory evacuations for the Covered Bridge Community of the Spanish Fork Canyon along with the Diamond Fork Canyon and the Right Fork Hobble Creek Canyon areas.

Below are excerpts from a Facilitated Learning Analysis recently released:

First WFDSS Decision

Late afternoon on August 24, the District Ranger wrote a Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) decision for the Bald Mountain Fire, which was then at 0.1 acre in size. This decision was published on August 27 at 1018 hours. Based on map estimates, the planning area boundary was 3,280 acres.

The relative risk was determined to be low, as were the probability of a significant event or extreme fire conditions. A Type 4 organization was determined as appropriate for staffing. The course of action recorded in WFDSS was to: “Allow fire to burn to north, northeast and east. However, consider and allow suppression actions on the southwest and southern boundaries to prevent fire from reaching private lands and minimizing the need to close the Mona Pole Road. Fire behavior may dictate a different outcome, but where management of the fire through suppression or other tactics allow for steering the fire in the right direction, implement those.”


Fire managers assessed the opportunity to take advantage of this fire to meet restoration objectives by taking into account such factors as: a lack of values at risk (campgrounds, private inholdings, power lines, etc.), the composition of the surrounding vegetation, time of year, remote location, recent precipitation, and potential hazards (standing dead trees, steep terrain, and loose rocks). They expected the fire to go out by itself like other recent fires on the Forest.

“We put the Bald Mountain Fire into monitor status due to issues with snags and associated safety concerns, but also because it was Wilderness where fire is OK as a natural process,” said the Zone Assistant Fire Management Officer/Duty Officer (ZAFMO/DO). “But firefighter safety was the primary driver for our decision.”


September 10

Shortly after 1400 hours, ICT4 called Dispatch, informing them that the winds had increased and the fire had aligned with the south fork of the drainage and was making a run. He requested that they order a Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT) and multiple aviation resources. ICT4 was new to the Region but came from a high complexity forest with a heavy fire load. Where he was from, an order for a Type 2 Team and significant aviation resources would have been automatic.

Meanwhile, ZFMO had just left the fire an hour before, when it was still 25 acres. “When I hit the bottom of Nebo Loop [Road] I could hear clearly a Type 2 Team being ordered from the fire,” said ZFMO/DO, a long-time UWF employee who had also been a hotshot superintendent on a northern Utah crew. He thought, “We need to ‘pump the brakes’ on the team order.” He told ICT4, (also a qualified ICT3) to hold on until he could get a look at the fire.

At the time ICT4 was calling for a Type 2 Team, the Forest DO and Forest FMO were briefing the Forest Supervisor. Not knowing the details of the rapidly evolving situation and thinking the fire was approximately 75 acres, the Forest Supervisor asked the Forest DO to put a hold on the aircraft and Type 2 IMT. After the Forest Supervisor’s review of WFDSS, it didn’t make sense to take such aggressive suppression action. The fire was well within the planning area, meeting objectives, and not close to threatening values at risk (see Figure 13). Parts of the order for aircraft went through, however, and shortly thereafter a Type 1 Helicopter and some “Fire Bosses” (water-scooping single-engine air tankers) were on scene.


September 13

[…] At 0836, the Forest Supervisor canceled the Type 2 IMT and ordered a Type 1 IMT to assume command for both the Pole Creek and the Bald Mountain Fires. At 1030, ZFMO flew the fires with ICT3 and ICT3t. The flight was rough due to unstable air and high winds. Both fires were actively burning and had already formed columns. They witnessed extreme fire behavior along the Highway 89 corridor with ongoing firefighting efforts. ICT3 noted that the Pole Creek Fire would likely impact Highway 6. ZFMO contacted Forest DO and recommended that the Forest Supervisor order a second Type 1 Team for just the Bald Mountain Fire due to fire behavior, values at risk, and the complexities of both fires.

September 13: Bald Mountain IC Transitions

At approximately 0500, a local Fire Chief arrived on scene and tied-in with Bald Mountain IC. The Chief ordered three engines from his department. All resources on the Bald Mountain Fire were now engaged in evacuations.


The WFDSS for Pole Creek published on September 13 included these courses of action:

  • Only commit firefighters under conditions where firefighters can actually succeed in protecting identified values at risk.
  • Utilize direct and indirect tactics to fully suppress the fire. This action will take into account: first, risk and exposure to firefighters and the public; and second, the protection of identified values such as utility corridors and infrastructure, private structures, the railroad corridor, and the Highway 6 corridor.

The WFDSS for Bald Mountain published on September 13 included the previous courses of action for Pole Creek and added:

  • Assign a Public Information Officer in order to disseminate timely information to the public, partners, and cooperators, including local government and law enforcement. All closures and evacuations will be coordinated with the Utah County Sheriffs’ Office.
  • Agency Administrator approval is required prior to any mechanized tool use within the Nebo Wilderness Area. Outside the Wilderness, the full range of tools and tactics are authorized. Work with READ [Resource Advisor] to mitigate impacts and assess rehab needs


Lessons Learned by Participants of the Incidents


  • Reading the 7-10 day outlook along with the spot weather forecasts can assist in gaining a better long-term perspective, which may lead to making different decisions in long-term events.
  • Using the 10 risk questions in WFDSS can open our thinking to options we may not have considered. These questions could encourage us to more carefully consider a wider array of possible outcomes from the decisions we make.
  • Fire modelers and weather forecasters are able to make better predictions with accurate and timely field observations.
  • Collaboration with predictive services early in an incident around long-term outlooks may help fire decision-makers. They are constantly producing tools to help firefighters in the field.
  • “Normalization of deviance2” (also referred to as “practical drift”) led us to not consider the worst-case scenario. Without planning for the worst-case scenario, we are constantly behind the power curve.


  • Nighttime fire behavior surprised us, especially this late in the season. This experience showed that high winds can override cooler temperatures and still create extreme fire behavior late in the fire season.
  • Understanding the capability and capacity of your resources is critical to ensuring the probability of keeping your resources safe.

Wildfires close in on Utah communities south of Provo

The fires are threatening communities, including Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge

(UPDATED at 11:51 a.m. MDT September 16, 2018)

Map Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires
Map of the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires with data from 12:16 a.m. MDT September 16, 2018. By the Incident Management Team.

The Incident Management Team reports that as of 12:16 a.m. Sunday the Pole Creek Fire had burned 61,248 acres and the Bald Mountain Fire, 13,509 acres.

Map Pole Creek Bald Canyon Fires
3-D map of the Pole Creek and Bald Canyon Fires, looking south. Data from 12:13 a.m. MDT Sept. 16, 2018. Wildfire Today, Google, USFS. Click to enlarge.

(Originally published at 9:12 a.m. MDT September 15, 2018)

Smoke Pole Creek Bald Mountain Fires
Smoke from the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires illuminated by flames. Posted on Twitter by Jennifer Stone (@stonejutah) with the hash tag #paysontemple

Fifteen miles south of Provo, Utah the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires had come within half a mile of merging when the fires were mapped at 2:36 a.m. Saturday. That city is not threatened but residents of Elk Ridge and Woodland Hills who have not evacuated yet are looking at flames on the steep slopes uncomfortably close to their homes.

Bald Mountain and Pole Creek Fires map
3-D map, looking south showing the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek Fires. The red lines were the perimeters at 10:45 p.m. MDT Sept. 14. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:36 a.m. Sept. 15. The red shaded areas had intense heat Friday night. Click to enlarge.

The fires were started by lightning on the Unita National Forest — Pole Creek on September 6 and Bald Mountain on August 24. Initially Forest Service personnel allowed them to burn with the intention of suppressing only the portions that may threaten property, private land, important natural resources, or lives. They wanted to herd them around, while re-introducing a natural process, fire, into the environment.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires, including the most current, click HERE.

Now they have both spread outside the land managed by the Forest Service and are burning private private property. No structures have been reported burned, but the estimated costs of suppressing the fires to date is almost $2 million. That number will keep rising as more firefighting resources flood in to augment the 433 personnel already on scene.

The reported sizes of the fires have been rather confusing at times, but according to a mapping flight at 10:45 Friday night the Pole Creek Fire was 48,497 acres and the Bald Mountain Fire had burned 11,090, for a combined total of 59,587 acres. A satellite overflight at 2:36 a.m. Saturday showed additional growth on the west and north sides that occurred in the four hours between the flights.

map Bald Mountain, Pole Creek, and Coal Hollow Fires
Map showing the Bald Mountain, Pole Creek, and Coal Hollow Fires. The red lines were the perimeters at 10:45 p.m. MDT Sept. 14. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:36 a.m. Sept. 15. The red shaded areas had intense heat Friday night. The Coal Hollow Fire has been quiet for several days. Click to enlarge.

With a Red Flag Warning in effect through Sunday, rapid fire growth to the north and east is expected to continue, with strong winds, and on Saturday, single-digit relative humidity.

Red Flag Warnings
Red Flag Warnings in effect September 15, 2018.

Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires grow rapidly south of Provo, Utah

Above: Satellite photo taken at 6:12 MDT September 14, 2018, showing wildfires in Utah and Colorado 

(UPDATED at 7:32 p.m. MDT September 14, 2018)

The Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires continued to grow South of Provo Friday in Utah, but since the wind was not as strong they did not increase as much as in recent days.

The many different numbers we’re hearing for the sizes of the fires are confusing. Some of them conflate the two fires, Pole Creek and Bald Mountain, and some do not. Even when they are separated out, we are not convinced they are accurate. Having said that, Suzanne Tenhagen, a spokesperson for the Pole Creek Incident Management Team, told us at 7:05 p.m. Friday that the Pole Creek fire had burned 54,000 acres and the Bald Mountain, 14,500 acres.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires, including the most current, click HERE.

The red dots on the map below represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:18 p.m. Sept. 14.

map coal hollow fire bald mountain pole creek utah wildfires
Map showing the Bald Mountain, Pole Creek, and Coal Hollow Fires. The red lines on the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek Fires were the perimeters at 11:30 p.m. MDT Sept. 13, 2018. The white line was the approximate additional growth that was missed during the 11:30 p.m. mapping. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:18 p.m. Sept. 14. The Coal Hollow Fire has been relatively quiet for several days.

(Originally published at 9:55 a.m. MDT September 14, 2018)

Hot, dry, windy weather has caused two fires 15 miles south of Provo, Utah to increase in size dramatically over the last several days. The Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires initially started between Interstate 15 and Highway 89. On Thursday, pushed by a 12 mph southwest wind gusting to 25 mph with 6 percent relative humidity, the Pole Creek Fire reached Highway 89. It didn’t stop there, and kept going for another nine miles and may have reached the western edge of the 31,000-acre Coal Hollow Fire just south of Highway 6. The Coal Hollow Fire is nearly wrapped up and has been relatively quiet for several days.

The aircraft that mapped the Coal Hollow Fire at 11:30 p.m. MDT Wednesday came up with a size of 31,899 acres. However, a large portion of the fire east of Highway 89 was not mapped. Our very unofficial, rough estimate of the unmapped area is that it covers approximately 7,000 acres, based on heat detected by a satellite at 2:53 a.m. MDT September 14. This would bring the total to more than 38,000 acres. The fire is 17 miles long, measured southwest to northeast.

The Bald Mountain Fire, west of Pole Creek, did not grow as much on Thursday. It was mapped Wednesday night at approximately 6,600 acres. Both fires were very active during the satellite overflight at 2:53 a.m.

Utah and several other states have been under Red Flag Warnings for days, and that should continue through Saturday. Friday’s forecast for the fire area calls for a high of 89, relative humidity extremely low at 6 percent, and 15 to 18 mph southwest winds gusting to 25. These conditions will be conducive to continued spread to the northeast, with the possibility of reaching or even crossing Highway 6.

Red Flag Warnings
Red Flag Warnings (red) and Fire Weather Watches (yellow) for September 14, 2018. NOAA

Fire activity picks up in Utah and Colorado

At least five large wildfires are growing in the two states

Above: Satellite photo at 5:37 p.m. MDT Sept. 13, 2018 showing smoke from wildfires in Utah and Colorado.

(Originally published at 7:16 p.m. MDT September 13, 2108)

The Red Flag Warning that brought strong winds and very low humidities Wednesday and Thursday contributed to the rapid growth of several wildfires in Utah and Colorado.

In Utah two fires about 18 miles south of Provo spread very rapidly Wednesday night and Thursday. The Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires, between Highways 54 and 89, are only about five miles apart. Two Type 1 Incident Management Teams are en route to these fires.  Todd Pechota’s team will manage the Bald Mountain Fire and Beth Lund’s team will take the Pole Creek Fire.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires, including the most current, click HERE.

Map Pole Creek Bald Mountain Fires
Map of the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires showing heat detected by a satellite as late as 2:36 p.m. MDT September 13, 2018.

At 2:36 p.m. MDT a satellite detected heat on the Pole fire indicating that it had spread over a relatively narrow path 14 miles long and had crossed Highway 89. This information from a satellite 200 miles overhead is preliminary and needs to be confirmed by someone closer to the ground.

The Bald Mountain Fire appeared to have spread about five miles. Both fires were pushed by strong southwest winds, causing them to grow to the northeast.

Our extremely rough very unofficial estimate of the size of the two fires in Utah, based on the 2:36 p.m. MDT satellite data on Friday — at that time the Bald Mountain Fire had burned approximately 2,000 acres and the Pole Creek Fire had grown to about 14,000 acres.

Two fires along Highway 318 in northwest Colorado 10 and 24 miles northwest of Maybell were quite active Thursday. They are named the Three Wash and Boone Gulch Fires.

The Silver Creek Fire 16 miles northwest of Kremmling, Colorado continued to spread toward Highway 40. Thursday afternoon it was about three miles west of the highway.