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Keep up with the latest news about wildfires in Utah.

‘They’re Our Mountains’: Moab Community Reflects On Pack Creek Fire At Live Reading

People sit in chairs facing a podium in a bookstore.
Kate Groetzinger
People gathered at Back of Beyond Books on June 21, 2021 to mourn the effects of the Pack Creek Fire. It has scorched almost 9,000 acres in the nearby La Sal Mountains.

When the Pack Creek Fire started burning in the La Sal Mountains, it had a big impact on locals, according to Sam Van Wetter. He is an employee at Back of Beyond Books, on Main Street in Moab.

“It was really jarring to folks, to say, ‘All of a sudden the place where I would go on my weekend, on my day off, to cool off is suddenly shut down and it's burning,’” Van Wetter said.

He and his colleagues noticed people were posting tributes to the mountains on social media in the days after the fire began. He said that inspired them to make a short book, called La Sal Mountain Elegies, out of the posts, in addition to essays they solicited from notable local writers, including Amy Irvine and Terry Tempest Williams.

They invited the authors and the public to a live reading of the book. Shari Zollinger, the event manager at the bookstore, kicked off the event, which was attended by around 30 people.

“When we bring our voices together, we heal,” Zollinger said. “Tonight we will hear from those who found their creative fire while watching the La Sal fire burn, those who took their thoughts into our virtual town centers, a.k.a. social media, to voice their despair, sadness [and] consternation.”

The pieces varied greatly in length and scope, but many addressed the environment and the experience of living through a worsening megadrought.

Brooke Williams read an essay he wrote for the book. He said, for him, the fire is an urgent reminder of climate change.

A photo of Sam Van Wetter speaking at a podium in a bookstore.
Kate Groetzinger
Back of Beyond Books employee Sam Van Wetter helped compile social media posts about the Pack Creek Fire into a short chapbook. It is called the La Sal Mountain Elegies.

“It was just this realization that there is no going back to what we've always depended on, that this is a new age that we're entering, and we don't have any clue what it's really going to look like,” he said.

Other pieces captured the importance of the mountains to the community, and the deep sense of loss its members feel. Tom Edwards read a poem about crying while planting peppers and watching smoke rise up from the La Sals.

“They’re our mountains, they’re ours,” Edwards said. “Not like we own them, but I've lived at the foot of those mountains since 1994. Sometimes it's just the fact that they're there, and that they can be there in the desert.”

Rachel Brown also contributed to the book. She and her husband live in the tiny community of Pack Creek, which was temporarily evacuated due to the fire. She wrote a note about the frustration and anger she felt after almost losing her home. But she said something good also came from the fire and its aftermath: a sense of community.

“I knew the humanity in this community, but when people started reaching out like this, you really feel it and you see it,” Brown said. “I think I needed that.”

The Pack Creek Fire is 62% contained. It began on June 9 due to an abandoned campfire. It has cost $7.8 million to fight, and almost 500 firefighters have contributed to its containment.

There are currently six other wildfires over the size of 100 acres burning in Utah. The largest is the Flatt Fire in Washington County, at 14,379 acres.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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