SALT LAKE CITY — Two lightning caused fires that had "unexpected outcomes" are under a multiagency review that is probing how the U.S. Forest Service responded to the blazes that charred more than 120,000 acres in central Utah.
Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, told lawmakers Wednesday that a "facilitated learning analysis" is being carried out to review agency response to the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires that collectively cost the agency $30 million to squelch.
The fires' management is being investigated because they had "unexpected outcomes," Whittekiend said.
"We did not expect the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires to behave the way they did," he said.
Whittekiend, who spoke to members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee, said the review was requested by Nora Rasure, Intermountain regional forester.
The agency put together a team that includes both federal and Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands employees.
"The vast majority of time we have very good people making the best decisions at the time," he said.
The review will include an examination of maps, timelines, dispatch records and any other pertinent information.
A lightning strike on Aug. 24 started the Bald Mountain Fire that after a couple of weeks stood at 20 acres and was under monitoring by the Forest Service. High winds on Sept. 12 whipped it into a frenzy, growing it to 18,620 acres and prompting multiple community and recreation evacuations involving thousands of people. It was contained in October.
The Pole Creek Fire began Sept. 6 from lightning and grew to 102,190 acres before it was extinguished a month later.
The fires caused devastating losses to ranchers.
"We had cattle with feet that were scorched from walking through hot ash. We had animals with bellies and udders burned," said rancher Rex Larsen, vice president of the Utah Farm Bureau.
The grazing association Larsen belongs to has about 140 head of cattle that remain unaccounted for.
"We don't know if that is fire related or if they are enjoying life up in the mountains and have not come home," he said.
Larsen praised the responsiveness of the federal agency during the weeks the fires played out, noting the Forest Service was good to work with in terms of coordinating access to rescue cattle from the mountains.Comment on this story
Other ranchers and officials throughout the summer, however, expressed frustration with the federal agency for its initial response to wildfires by underestimating how conditions might fuel erratic behavior, especially given the prolonged drought impacting Utah.
Whittekiend, who will be discussing wildfires with ranchers at the Utah Farm Bureau's annual convention on Friday, said a draft report of the investigation will be completed in a couple of weeks and a final report by year's end or early 2019.