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Fire Fears Force Arizona Land Closures 05/26 10:20

   FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Dry pine needles and dead wood snapped under fire 
prevention officer Matt Engbring's boots as he hiked a half-mile into the woods 
in search of a makeshift campsite that had served as one man's home until this 
week when the area was closed because of the escalating threat of massive 
wildfires.

   Engbring walked past small ravines where wind quickly could carry embers and 
by the charred remains of a campfire, finally reaching the spot where John 
Dobson had been living among ponderosa pines in Arizona's Coconino National 
Forest.

   He spotted Dobson earlier as he was leaving the forest with his bicycle and 
issued a warning that he'll likely repeat over the busy Memorial Day weekend as 
tourists flock to Arizona's cooler mountainous areas to hike, bike, camp and 
fish.

   "The area is closed now, and I can't allow you to go back in," he said.

   Many parts of the West are dealing with drought, but nowhere else has more 
state and federal land been closed to recreation than in Arizona where 
conditions are ripe for large-scale wildfires. Portions of the 
Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto national forests are closed 
because the dry vegetation quickly can go up in flames, firefighters would have 
a hard time stopping it, and homes and water resources are at risk.

   In neighboring New Mexico, fire restrictions are in place, but no forests 
have closed. Forest officials in the western part of that state have suspended 
woodcutting permits, including ceremonial wood gathering by Native American 
tribes. They've also warned the public to look out for hungry bears.

   Forests in southern Colorado and southern Utah are open but officials are 
limiting campfires to developed areas.

   "A lot of our rural, small communities depend on recreation and access to 
public land, so it's on the table but really an option of last resort," said 
Holly Krake, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service region that includes 
Colorado.

   Weather over the next six weeks is expected to be in line with the typical 
onset of fire season: increasingly hot, breezy and dry. Then the monsoonal 
system that carries heavy rain should kick in.

   "The bottom line is it's going to get worse before it gets better," said 
Rich Naden, fire weather meteorologist with the Southwest Coordination Center. 
"But this time of year is always like that. It's almost like clockwork."

   Widespread forest closures in Arizona are rare. The 1.8 million-acre 
Coconino National Forest shut down completely because of fire danger in 2006 
for nine days. A 2002 shutdown lasted nine weeks, encompassing the Memorial Day 
and July 4 holidays. Other national forests had closures in 2002 as well.

   The current closures are affecting a small percentage of national forests in 
Arizona, and the general guidance for tourists is to check ahead of time to see 
what's open and whether campfires are allowed.

   In Flagstaff, Los Angeles residents Pauline and John Barba had hoped to 
barbeque this week while staying at a commercial campground, but charcoal 
grills were wrapped in yellow caution tape.

   Nearby, a bright yellow sign on the barbed wire fence warned that no one is 
allowed in the forest.

   "We love the outdoors and the pine trees and everything," she said. "It's 
just a shame people are destructive and not careful."

   Beyond inconveniencing campers and hikers, the drought's effects and forest 
closures are being felt by ranchers who can't graze cattle in the forest and 
researchers who can't conduct studies. Forest thinning projects also are 
delayed.

   At a ski resort outside of Flagstaff, 50 people are out of work, and 
hundreds of tickets for pre-booked activities have been canceled. The Arizona 
Snowbowl, which operates under a special permit in a closed forest area, had 
hoped to run its scenic chair lift and debut family activities this weekend.

   Those who left camping trailers in now-closed areas of the Coconino National 
Forest to stake out a spot for the busy holiday weekend will have to call 
forest officials to unlock the gate to let them out. Others have tried avoiding 
officials patrolling the forest or sneaking in when no one is looking.

   The biggest fear is that a campfire sparks a wildfire. The Coconino National 
Forest recorded 700 abandoned campfires last year, and 121 built illegally 
during fire restrictions, setting a record. Target shooting, drones, cigarettes 
and sparks from vehicle exhausts also are concerns.

   At his campsite, Dobson said he used a butane stove to cook rather than 
light campfires. He heard about the closure a few days earlier at a local food 
bank, saying he was in a tough spot with nowhere to take his dishes, books and 
clothing.

   Engbring called for help from his colleagues to haul Dobson's belongings out 
of the forest. After loading up Dobson's bike in the back of a pickup truck, 
they headed for the food bank.


(KA)

 
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