Large ar­eas of pub­lic forests closed in West

Fires prompt ‘huge step’ de­spite eco­nomic ef­fect

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Trevor Hughes

Ex­treme fire dan­ger in the South­west has prompted fed­eral land man­agers to take the un­usual step of in­def­i­nitely clos­ing pub­lic ac­cess to an area of na­tional forests larger than Con­necti­cut.

Colorado, New Mex­ico and Ari­zona are strug­gling with an usu­ally hot spring that came af­ter a win­ter with lit­tle snow­fall, prim­ing the forests to burn. And rangers say campers are fail­ing to ex­tin­guish their camp­fires, cre­at­ing an un­ten­able sit­u­a­tion.

Wild­fires are al­ready burn­ing in the area, in­clud­ing the 23,000-acre 416 Fire near Du­rango, Colorado, and the 41,000-acre Buz­zard Fire in west-cen­tral New Mex­ico.

“Un­der cur­rent con­di­tions, one aban­doned camp­fire could cause a cat­a­strophic wild­fire, and we are not will­ing to take that chance,” Santa Fe Na­tional For­est Su­per­vi­sor James Melonas said in a state­ment.

Rangers have closed the en­tire San Juan Na­tional For­est in south­ern Colorado and Santa Fe Na­tional For­est in New Mex­ico near Santa Fe, along with pop­u­lar ar­eas in the Tonto, Apache-Sit­g­reaves, Co­conino and Kaibab na­tional forests in Ari­zona.

The San Juan and Santa Fe forests alone rep­re­sent more than 5,000 square miles. State and county roads run­ning through the forests re­main open, but vir­tu­ally all other uses are barred.

The Santa Fe for­est clo­sure be­gan June 1, and the San Juan clo­sure be­gan Tues­day morn­ing. Rangers con­sid­ered the weather fore­cast, for­est health, visi­ta­tion num­bers and the avail­abil­ity of fire­fight­ing equip­ment be­fore mak­ing the de­ci­sion. They also noted many campers have been ig­nor­ing camp­fire bans en­acted across the West.

“It’s a huge step. We’ve never gone into clo­sure be­fore,” said Cam Hoo­ley, act­ing pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cer for the San Juan Na­tional For­est. “It’s a big in­con­ve­nience and a big eco­nomic hit to the area. We don’t do it lightly.”

Be­cause so much of the West’s econ­omy de­pends on tourists who hike, fish and camp on pub­lic lands, pri­vate busi­nesses are eye­ing the clo­sures with con­cern. But what’s worse, they know, are wild­fires that could de­stroy neigh­bor­ing forests and prompt tourists to stay away for decades un­til the trees grow back.

“We’re sad that the for­est is closed, but there are a hand­ful of peo­ple who just don’t get it and walk away from their camp­fire,” said Deb­bie Packard, who works at the Canon Del Rio re­sort and spa in Je­mez Springs, N.M., in the Santa Fe Na­tional For­est.

Packard said the adobe-style re­sort has seen no im­pact from the for­est clo­sure and cred­ited au­thor­i­ties with putting up signs telling vis­i­tors that lo­cal busi­nesses are open. Packard said the re­sort is giv­ing out a list of ac­tiv­i­ties for vis­i­tors, which in­clude us­ing the re­sort’s own walk­ing trails and soak­ing in their pools.

“We pray that no­body goes up there and starts a fire,” she said. “We’re all pray­ing for a good wet sea­son.”

Rangers are check­ing trail­heads and camp­grounds to alert the pub­lic to the clo­sure or­ders. Know­ingly vi­o­lat­ing the clo­sures could draw a fine of up to $5,000 and six months in jail.

Fore­cast­ers at the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter say the warm, dry con­di­tions have put large por­tions of the Western states at above-av­er­age risk for sig­nif­i­cant wild­fires be­tween now and Septem­ber, and this year’s wild­fire sea­son could ri­val last year’s, one of the most dev­as­tat­ing on record.

Last year’s fires killed 53 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 14 fire­fight­ers, and burned more than 10 mil­lion acres, an area larger than Mary­land. The blazes de­stroyed more than 12,300 homes and other struc­tures.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment spent a record $2.9 bil­lion to sup­press last year’s fires, For­est Ser­vice of­fi­cials said. This year, nearly 24,000 wild­fires have burned more than 1.7 mil­lion acres across the coun­try.

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