Tourists and the residents of Arizona mountain towns that rely on them won't have access to parts of some national forests this summer as authorities attempt to prevent wildfires during a critically dangerous time.
The Tonto National Forest says several closures are in effect now:
1. All Tonto National Forest Land north of Payson to the Forest boundary (Mogollon Rim) between the White Mountain Apache Reservation on the eastern boundary, and the Coconino National Forest on the western boundary. The southern boundary of the closure will start at the Fossil Creek Trailhead and head southeasterly along the powerline corridor to Arizona State Highway 87 into Payson and then follow Arizona State Highway 260 east from Payson, along National Forest System Road (NFSR) 405 and NFSR 405A to the National Forest System Trail 178 east along Haigler Creek to the White Mountain Apache Reservation.
2. All National Forest System Lands, roads and trails within the Mt. Ord, Four Peaks and Three Bar Wildlife areas.
National Forest System Road 583 from State Highway 87 will remain open for access to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. The Tonto Creek and Canyon Creek Fish Hatcheries operated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department will be closed for public access.
Arizona State highways 87, 260 and 188 are open for public travel.
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests announced Wednesday that some areas will be closed to the public, although officials haven't yet decided which ones. That's after the Kaibab National Forest on May 11 announced the closure of about 23.4 square miles (6,070 hectares) centered on Bill Williams Mountain near Williams. That closure is intended to protect the watershed for Williams, a northern Arizona city that's a jumping-off point for many visitors to Grand Canyon National Park.
Forest officials said the last full closures of the Apache-Sitgreaves and Kaibab forests were in 2002, while the adjacent Coconino National Forest last had a full closure in 2006.
Campfire bans and other restrictions are in effect at national forests in most of Arizona and neighboring New Mexico, two drought-stricken states where a lack of precipitation has led to numerous fires in recent years.
On Friday, May 18, the Coconino National Forest announced temporary closures to six large areas to public access starting May 23 due to potential fire dangers and for public safety. The following areas are impacted by the closures:
Flagstaff Ranger District
· San Francisco Peaks/Mt. Elden area
· Kelly Canyon area
· Fay Canyon/Fisher Point area
· Mormon Mountain area
Mogollon Rim Ranger District
· Mogollon Rim area south of state Route 87
Red Rock Ranger District
· Fossil Creek area
Coconino Forestry officials said people with permits to Fossil Creek during the closure will be refunded and will need to reschedule their trips , and apply for a new permit, once the closures are lifted.
Arizona is already experiencing destructive wildfires.
Earlier in May, the Viewpoint wildfire near Chino Valley burned more than 5,600 acres and destroyed two homes, 12 structures, four RV travel trailers, and six vehicles before crews were able to fully contain the fire.
The Tinder Fire, which started April 27 near Happy Jack, continues to burn within containment lines that forced the evacuation of about 600 people from 1000 homes within the area . That fire has burned more than 16,000 acres, destroyed 87 structures, and is only 79 percent contained.
Forestry officials have been able to determine that both wildfires were human-caused.
While forest closures in Arizona might result in fewer visitors to the towns within the mountains, many residents are supportive.
"I'm sure there's some impact there, but I think we're better off to have a little bit of impact than have our town burn down up here," said Show Low City Manager Ed Muder. The city is in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, which include the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains.
Both forested regions, which include many campgrounds and lakes, serve as havens for residents of Phoenix and other desert cities looking to escape the summer heat.
Apache-Sitgreaves spokeswoman Liza Simmons said forest officials plan to decide next week what areas need to be closed. The closures likely would take effect immediately, she said.
What areas will be closed will depend on considerations such as fuel conditions, possible evacuation routes and likely directions of wind that would drive wildfires, Simmons said.
Once closures are in effect, "people wouldn't be able to hike, they wouldn't be able to fish, they wouldn't be able to use their OHVs (off-highway vehicles), they wouldn't be able to enter the area," Simmons said.
The Kaibab's closure of the area near Williams affects local residents, including some whose property backs up against the mountain.
But the town still sees enough activity from tourists to get by, Mayor John Moore said.
"That particular area is critical because it is our watershed, so we try to protect it," Moore said.
Forest fuels, the slope of Bill Williams Mountain and other terrains would make firefighting difficult, she said. The area also is popular with hikers and campers, as well as locals who regularly set out on trails nearly in their backyards.
"For us, it was really critical for us to close that area to any entry or recreation use. A fire starting at the base of the mountain could lead to enormous and long-lasting impacts to Bill Williams and the watershed," Banks said.
A closure of the entire forest would mean forest thinning projects, meant to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires, also couldn't move forward, she said. The work is meant to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires, yet sparks from heavy equipment and chainsaws could start a wildfire, she said.
With a full closure, Forest Service employees' jobs would shift to making sure people don't violate a closure order, Banks said.
"That means no entry, people cannot enter the forest," she said. "People often hear `forest closure' but don't often realize all the implications of that."
Fines and punishments for violating fire restrictions and closures:
- Violating Stage II fire restrictions or going into a closed area is a violation that carries a mandatory appearance in federal court.
- Violation of these restrictions is punishable as a Class B misdemeanor, which means a fine of up to $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment of up to six months, or both.
- Fines and punishments are determined by a federal court judge.