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12:27 PM Thu, Nov. 15th

Forest will stay open despite <BR>fire danger<BR>

PRESCOTT – Prescott National Forest officials have received 165 petition signatures and e-mails asking them to close the forest, but officials have decided to keep it open.

The highest level of fire-use restrictions remain in effect, with all campfires banned and people being required to smoke inside vehicles or buildings.

The southwestern portion of the forest, including Castle Springs Wilderness and Horse-thief Basin near Crown King, are the only areas completely closed to the public. Other national forests in Arizona also have fire-use restrictions in effect for the holiday weekend.

The energy release component, a measurement of the wildfire danger, hit a record 105 on the Prescott National Forest Wednesday. The ERC had hit 103 when the Prescott Forest closed in May 2002 for the first time in its history.

The National Weather Service is predicting sunny skies and slightly above-normal temperatures through at Wednesday.

A high-pressure system needs to set up over the Four Corners area, with good moisture surging up from the south, to kick in the monsoon season, meteorologist Ken Daniel said. The monsoons typically start as early as today in Prescott.

The Prescott area hasn't seen any rain since the end of May, and that month totaled only 0.04 inches. The 105-year average is 0.50 inches for May and 0.41 inches for June. They traditionally are the driest months of the year.

People who signed the petition say they are on pins and needles, because the wildfire danger remains extremely high and pine trees continue to die off from a bark beetle epidemic and long-term drought.

"It's just this feeling of uncertainty that gets to you," said Chuck Prohaska, a resident of Sherman Pines just south of Prescott. He has packed many belongings and taken them to his mother's house, just in case a wildfire strikes.

"We're just sitting up here very paranoid and very packed," agreed fellow Sherman Pines resident Linda Hill. "It's just an unsettling period right now."

She's spending a lot of her time at home looking out the window and listening to her police scanner, adding that she'd feel safer if officials closed the forest at least to minimize the possibility of a human-caused fire.

"It's obvious these people are concerned, and we understand why," said Mark Johnson, the Prescott Forest's top fire management officer. However, forest officials believe that heavy patrolling and signs about fire restrictions are just as effective as closing the forest.

Fifteen vehicles with one to two people are patrolling the forest all weekend alongside fire engines. State officials have a fire restriction notice on their electronic billboard over northbound Interstate 17 at Sunset Point. Forest officials have put up temporary electronic message boards along Walker Road and Senator Highway, and by Kirkland Junction and Cleator.

"So there's going to be little doubt in people's minds we mean it," Johnson said of the fire restrictions.

Despite the record ERC and more than half of the pine trees in the Prescott Basin portion of the forest being dead, officials cited several reasons for keeping the forest open.

It's late in the dry season compared to the time the forest closed last year, the forest has more firefighting resources available than last year, and people are more aware of the wildfire danger this year, said Deputy Forest Supervisor Mike Baca. He is acting supervisor right now while Mike King serves as the temporary top fire and aviation officer for the Southwestern region.

In the past, forest officials have seen closures simply drive illegal squatters farther into the forest where they're harder to find, said Steve Sams, public services program leader on the forest.

Officials also pointed out that about 90 percent of the fire restrictions' violators last year were local residents.

Since fire restrictions went into effect in May, violations on the Prescott Forest doubled to six for the week ending Monday. But since then, only one violation has occurred, fire prevention officer Travis Haines said.

Someone started a wildfire on Mingus Mountain near Forest Road 104 and Allen Springs Road in the early morning hours of Tuesday, but firefighters held it to one acre. They are investigating the cause.

A forest closure wouldn't have prevented last year's Indian fire, which started along a road that remained open because it accessed the Ponderosa Park subdivision, noted Gary Wittman, forest information officer. Officials never caught the person who started that fire.

Forest officials will review the weekend's activities Monday, Johnson said.

For information about fire restrictions and general fire information for any Southwestern forest, call toll free 1-877-864-6985 or see the following Web site: www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire.

For information about local emergencies, visit the following Web site: www.regionalinfoalert.org.

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com