Extreme fire danger in the southwest has prompted federal land managers to take the unusual step of indefinitely closing public access to an area of national forests larger than Connecticut.
Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona are struggling with an unusually hot spring that came after a winter with little snowfall, priming the forests to burn. And rangers say campers are failing to extinguish their campfires, creating an untenable situation.
Multiple wildfires are already burning in the area, including the 23,000-acre 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, and the 41,000-acre Buzzard Fire in west-central New Mexico.
“Under current conditions, one abandoned campfire could cause a catastrophic wildfire, and we are not willing to take that chance with the natural and cultural resources under our protection and care,” Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor James Melonas said in a statement.
Rangers have closed the entire San Juan National Forest in southern Colorado and Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico near Santa Fe, along with popular areas in the Tonto, Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino and Kaibab national forests in Arizona.
The San Juan and Santa Fe forests alone represent more than 5,000 square miles. State and county roads running through the forests remain open, but virtually all other uses have been barred.
The Santa Fe forest closure began June 1, and the San Juan closure began Tuesday morning. Rangers considered the weather forecast, forest health, visitation numbers and the availability of firefighting equipment before making the decision. They also noted many campers have been ignoring campfire bans enacted across the west.
"It's a huge step. We've never gone into closure before," said Cam Hooley, acting public affairs officer for the San Juan National Forest near Durango. "It’s a big inconvenience and a big economic hit to the area. We don't do it lightly."
Because so much of the West's economy depends on tourists who hike, fish and camp on public lands, private businesses are eyeing the closures with concern. But what's worse, they know, are wildfires that could destroy neighboring forests and prompt tourists to stay away for decades until the trees grow back.
"We're sad that the forest is closed, but there are a handful of people who just don’t get it and walk away from their campfire," said Debbie Packard, who works at the Canon Del Rio resort and spa in Jemez Springs, N.M., in the Santa Fe National Forest.
Packard said the adobe-style resort has seen no impact from the forest closure and credited authorities with putting up signs telling visitors that local businesses are open. Packard said the resort is also giving out a list of activities for visitors, which include using the resort's own walking trails and soaking in their pools.
"We pray that nobody goes up there and starts a fire," she said. "We're all praying for a good wet season."
Rangers have been checking trailheads and campgrounds to alert the public to the closure orders. Knowingly violating the closures brings a mandatory federal court appearance and could draw a fine of up to $5,000 and six months in prison.
Forecasters at the National Interagency Fire Center say warmer and drier-than-normal conditions have put large portions of the Western states at above-average risk for significant wildfires between now and September, and this year’s wildfire season could rival last year’s, one of the most devastating on record.
Last year’s fires killed 53 people, including 14 firefighters, and burned more than 10 million acres, an area larger than Maryland. The blazes destroyed more than 12,300 homes and other structures.
The federal government spent a record $2.9 billion to suppress last year’s fires, Forest Service officials said. This year, nearly 24,000 wildfires have burned more than 1.7 million acres across the country.