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Opportunities for campfires in Arizona scarce

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – For those who think they can’t go camping without a
campfire, authorities are offering this: Try camping without a forest.

With the threat of wildfires brought on by low humidity, drought and high
temperatures across much of the West, land managers are finding it best to limit
where campfires can be built. All of the forest land in New Mexico and Arizona
is in some level of restrictions, with Arizona outright banning campfires in all
but parts of one forest.

Wildfires have consumed nearly 75,000 acres in Arizona so far this year and
more than 367,000 acres in New Mexico _ the majority of which are human-caused.
While authorities don’t always know specifically what sparked them, they say
campfires are among the culprits.

The U.S. Forest Service has issued seven citations for illegal campfires in New
Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest, so far this year, and found 13 abandoned
campfires. The numbers are much higher in Arizona where 125 warnings and
citations have been issued for illegal campfires across all forests in the
state, and 16 campfires have been found abandoned. The majority of those have
been in northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest.

Jon Nelson, the patrol captain for the Forest Service in northern Arizona, said
the most common excuse he hears for illegal campfires is that campers are
unaware of the restrictions. Others are intent on having a campfire no matter
what, Nelson said, citing a group of campers from Phoenix who recently received
a violation notice fully aware that campfires were illegal.

“It’s not the criminal sanction that people should be thinking about,” he
said. “It’s the civil liability people have if they start a fire and if they do
burn down someone’s house and the forest. That’s a tremendous responsibility.”

Memories of a campfire quickly burning out of control still are fresh in the
minds of Arizonans and New Mexicans with last year’s Wallow Fire. Two cousins
from southern Arizona thought they had extinguished their campfire in the Apache
Sitgreaves National Forest and went for a hike. When they returned, winds had
picked up the embers, creating a wildfire that eventually burned more than
538,000 acres in both states.

The campfire wasn’t illegal at that time, but authorities say it’s proof of
what can happen with the right combination of fire, dry vegetation and weather.
The cousins pleaded guilty to building a campfire without clearing flammable
material and abandoning it. They each face up to a year in jail and a $10,000
fine.

Campfires, even in developed areas, are prohibited across nearly all of
Arizona’s forests right now. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is allowing open
fires in grills at some campgrounds, including those along the Colorado River.
The Grand Canyon has banned all campfires except along the Colorado River.

In New Mexico, two of the five national forests have banned campfires, and
others allow them only in developed areas. Bans in cities, counties and on
American Indian reservations add to the area on which campfires aren’t allowed.

The restrictions won’t keep Jeremy Davis, of Tucson, from summertime camping
trips. A sunset, full moon, or a lantern are good alternatives to campfires, he
said.

“This time of year in southern Arizona, we’re all sort of getting used to the
fact that we can’t have campfires,” he said. “You don’t have to have
campfires, but it’s always nice when it’s a little cooler outside. It’s not
really required to have fun anymore.”

Matt Childs, of Flagstaff, said the restrictions make complete sense
considering the dry conditions. But he would rather forego camping this summer
than be without a campfire.

“I always find it boring to go camping when there’s no fire,” he said. “It’s
just sitting at nighttime, you had a long day of hiking, you just want to warm
up, get your marshmallows going, sit by the fire, have a drink. It’s just a
bummer.”

The campfire restrictions aren’t expected to be lifted until significant rain
falls in drought-stricken New Mexico and Arizona. While the monsoon season
officially has started, June is the least rainy month of the season. Flagstaff,
for example, receives about one-third of an inch of rain in June, 2.5 inches in
July and more than 3 inches in August. Of the storms that form in June, a lot of
the precipitation evaporates before it hits the ground, Robert Rickey, a
meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.

Carrie Templin, a spokeswoman for BLM in Arizona, recently drove through a
storm in Tucson that dropped some rain but also came with lightning that started
several wildfires.

“One rain storm may not be sufficient,” she said. “It may take several days
of rainstorms. If nothing else, that continuing afternoon humidity to get us
into a situation and place where if you have a fire start, you have a chance to
catch it.”