Continued drought, high temperatures and windy conditions are forcing government agencies to restrict the use of open fires on public lands and to close portions of National Forest to public use. The weather conditions greatly increase the danger of wildfires, and with the temporary loss of large firefighting air tankers, officials are that much more concerned about balancing the public's right to use public lands against the likelihood of a major fire.
At present, the various agencies have adopted similar fire restrictions, with some variations. Most prohibit open fires but allow some use of gas stoves, and all permit smoking, some with limitations. But restrictions will change with the weather, and the different agencies modify restrictions and implement closures as they see fit for the lands under their authority.
Restrictions vary even among the southwestern National Forests. For example, the fire danger has already led officials to close parts of the Tonto National Forest to all public access.
Prescott National Forest officials called for fire restrictions beginning May 26. Campfires, charcoal grills and stove fires are prohibited in the forest except in developed fee recreation sites where grills and fire rings are provided. Pressurized liquid or gas stoves, lanterns and heaters are still permitted. Smoking is allowed only within enclosed vehicles or buildings.
For the past several years National Forest officials increased restrictions as the fire danger increased, prohibiting campfires, camp stoves and all sources of ignition – including chainsaws and recreational shooting of firearms - everywhere in several southwestern forests. Eventually officials closed parts of some National Forests as conditions worsened and individuals failed to comply with restrictions.
"People can strongly influence which way restrictions go," Prescott National Forest Fire Information Officer Rick Hartigan said. "Dry as it is, the smallest spark will start a fire."
If forest users all comply with the restrictions – most especially regarding the ban on campfires – officials may not close some areas like they did last year, he said. Last year PNF officials closed some of the forest because they kept finding abandoned, smoldering campfires during the prohibition on open fires, Hartigan said. There's already been one such incident this season. Last week firefighters and tanker aircraft put out a one-acre fire near Prescott that originated with an illegal campfire.
Individual Forest Supervisors routinely decide the level of restriction for their forests. To get up-to-the-minute information go to www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire. From there you can get to the web pages of the individual southwestern National Forest offices where officials post current restrictions and closures.
"We generally follow the fire restrictions of the National Forests," said Arizona State Parks spokeswoman Julieanne Phillipps. "But restrictions are really individualized for each state park."
Restrictions at state parks can, in fact, diverge widely from federal restrictions. For example, for the past two years Fool Hollow State Park has remained open even while the surrounding Tonto National Forest was closed to all public access.
For that reason, Phillipps said, anyone intending to use fire at any state park should first check current fire restrictions posted on their website at www.azstateparks.com.