Fear of wildfires forces forest closures across Arizona

When temperatures are sweltering in Arizona's desert areas, people head to the forests to camp, hike, fish and just cool off.

But options for finding respite from the heat will be slim now that all but one of Arizona's national forests are enacting broad shutdowns amid high fire danger and as firefighting resources run thin with blazes already burning across the state.

Portions of forests in other western states also are off-limits. But the shutdowns in Arizona are the most widespread and, by June 25, will include land owned and managed by the state.

Kathy Howard set out for a hike in Sedona on June 23 a couple of hours before the Coconino National Forest closure went into effect. She crossed a creek where she enjoys listening to water gently roll over the rocks, turned right and was greeted with caution tape.

Her plans were dashed.

"I have to say I'm glad that they did close the forest because we don't want to lose our trees and all the flora and fauna out there," said Howard, who splits her time between Scottsdale and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Arizona has been a hotbed for wildfires so far this year, with more large fires burning than in any other state and across all terrain. The fires have forced rural residents from their homes and sent motorists on sometimes lengthy detours.


Firefighters got help Wednesday with cooler weather and the hope of rain, however short-lived it might be with a warming trend in the forecast later this week. Still, they were on alert for thunderstorms that could produce lightning and touch off more blazes.

The Coconino and Kaibab national forests in northern Arizona closed Wednesday. Apache-Sitgreaves, Prescott and Tonto were set to close later this week. Tonto near Phoenix will leave most of its lakes open for recreation.

A previous, full closure of the Coconino forest 2006 lasted nine days. A 2002 shutdown lasted nine weeks, encompassing the Memorial Day and July 4 holidays.

There's no telling when the latest closures, which don't affect state or national parks, will be rescinded.

"We know the public wants to get outside," said Tiffany Davila, spokeswoman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Management. "But it comes down to public and firefighter safety and making sure we can get people to the next incident, if and when it occurs."

Coconino forest employees were scattered throughout the forest Wednesday, letting campers, hikers and locals know about the closure, posting signs and providing information on social services to people who regularly camp in the forest.

Keith Buchli drove to Flagstaff from Scottsdale to escape the heat, knowing the forest would be closed, but checked some roads just in case. Instead of his planned mountain bike ride, he rode on the highway shoulder. Exercise is exercise, he said.

"It's so much nicer here," he said. "I just love getting out into the woods."

Nearby, the road that leads to a ski resort that operates a scenic chairlift in the summer also was closed.

To the southwest in Prescott, a summer camp for kids will have to nix horseback riding and camping in the nearby forest. Kevin Nissen, co-director of Friendly Pines, said the camp has plenty of room on its own property for other activities.

"Hopefully the rains will come and this will all get lifted," he said.

Beyond inconveniencing campers and hikers, the forest closures are felt by businesses that rely on tourists, hunters, ranchers and researchers who can't conduct studies. Forest thinning also could be delayed.

Continuing coverage of Arizona's wildfires:

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