Tinderbox West under drastic fire controls

Drought-caused threat of fires has caused restrictions on – and whole closures of – most forests in the Southwest.

In the Los Ojos restaurant, two patrons swallow the last of their lunch while the bartender chews the fat with a local. Otherwise, the place is unnaturally empty for this time of year: This is supposed to be the busy season for this tiny town nestled in the rugged Santa Fe National Forest.

For the first time since 1975, the Santa Fe National Forest – all 1.8 million acres – is closed to hikers, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Warning signs, police tape, and gates barricade access roads.

It's a similar story up and down the Rocky Mountain spine, the Southwest, and Great Basin where the decade-long drought has created tinderbox conditions. All-time records for dryness are being set in the nation's forests, creating what officials say could be the worst fire season in decades.

As a result, entire forests are being shut down to the public by federal and state officials who reason that preventing people from even stepping foot on government land may reduce wildfires, the majority of which are caused by humans.

"Just about every forest in the Southwest is closed or under some type of restrictions," says Walt Hisenberg at the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque. "It's a drastic thing to close forests. In a normal year, we wouldn't have to do this. But this isn't a normal year."

New Mexico closed the Santa Fe forest earlier this month, and Arizona closed two forests just before Memorial Day weekend. (Indeed, yesterday, a wildfire that forced the evacuation of about 100 Arizona residents in the Coronado National Forest was threatening 700 homes. And a wildfire had scorched more than 11,000 acres in the rugged Pecos Wilderness of the Santa Fe National Forest.)

Businesses burned by closures

While they understand that a burning forest will bring even fewer visitors, many businesses that rely entirely on the summer season are distressed.

"This is not fair.... The forest may be closed, but we're still open," said Jackie, the Los Ojos bartender in Jemez Springs, echoing a lament heard across the West.

"We're doing as much as we can to help the businesses," says John Peterson, the Jemez district ranger, whose office is just around the bend from the Los Ojos. "But when 90 percent of the people who come here come for the forests, that doesn't go far. The drought is affecting everything."

This year, the fire season – which normally begins in mid-April – began for some areas in late February, with snow still blanketing the ground. Montana has already been designated a federal drought-disaster area, and the governors of Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming are seeking the designation. Nevada and Utah face states of emergency over water shortages, and Oklahoma and Texas wheat farmers are laboring under the driest conditions since the Dust Bowl.

"The drought is exacerbating the situation, making fire conditions even more ripe," says Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "It caused the fire season to come much, much earlier this year – some six to eight weeks earlier – and that lengthens the time these areas are at risk."

So with such a dramatic risk, dramatic measures are in order, say officials.

That has led to closing whole forests: The Santa Fe National Forest, for example, has been closed for the first time since 1975; and for only the third time in 30 years, the Coconino and Tonto National Forests in Arizona have been closed.

Officials have increased firefighting resources – planes, personnel, and equipment – by 30 percent, says Mr. Hisenberg.

But some Southwest lawmakers say it isn't enough.

Earlier this month, senators from both parties accused the US Forest Service and Interior Department of spending too little money to rehabilitate burned acreage and remove trees that could feed fires.

Those two elements were key parts of the National Fire Plan created after the devastating 2000 fire season in which more than 8.4 million acres were burned and $2 billion was spent in firefighting.

This year, however, conditions are even worse. Thunderstorms without rain are adding to the problem.

Lightning's smoldering threat

One day last week, for example, 4,000 lightning strikes were recorded in Arizona and New Mexico. A lightning strike can set a spark that smolders weeks before erupting into fire.

But the major cause of forest fires is human. For instance, of the 464 fires in New Mexico this year, 406 were started by humans.

Even more significant is the steady flow of people who are moving further into the woods without enough knowledge about how to live with fire, say officials.

"The whole entire West is considered a fire environment," says Claudia Standish, the wildlife-urban interface specialist for the Santa Fe National Forest. "A hundred years ago, fire was allowed to function as a clean-up tool. But we can't do that anymore. Too many people are living here now." Her job is to educate the public about how to create a "fire-wise environment" around a forest home. For example: Remove or prune trees near the house; rake flammable vegetation from around the house and on the roof; don't stack fire wood next to the house.

Many businesses rely on a public that is eager to live near the forest or come for a visit – and that makes closures all the more difficult. Back in Jemez Springs, at the Los Ojos restaurant Janet Holmes, vacationing from Philadelphia, says she wasn't too upset to hear about the forest closure.

But she admits: "I'm not a very big hiker. I'm more interested in the art and Indian lore. In fact, I was kind of relieved that the forest was closed so I didn't have to feel bad about not spending time there."

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