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Posted Apr 20, 2012, 8:22 am
PHOENIX – Two years ago, an unattended campfire sparked a wildfire that burned 15,000 acres near Flagstaff. Last year, another unattended campfire sent the largest wildfire in state history raging across eastern Arizona.
With another fire season at hand, Camilla McCauley said she and other Flagstaff residents would be safer if the U.S. Forest Service simply banned campfires until monsoon rains arrive.
“We are scared to death that a fire’s going to come up,” she said. “It could devastate this town.”
McCauley and four others have founded Campfires Limited, a grassroots organization advocating via a website and a petition drive for an annual ban on campfires in the Coconino, Kaibab, Prescott, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests.
The group believes a consistent ban from May 1 through July 15 would remove any confusion as to whether an individual national forest has campfire restrictions in place.
Campfires were allowed when the Schultz Fire broke out in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff. Bob Leaverton, director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service’s Southwestern Region, said that fire restrictions are determined by a weekly conference call among state, county, local and other federal fire districts.
“We ask, ‘Looking back what has been the weather trend? What’s the current weather trend? What’s the potential for extreme fire behavior? Are we having a lot of campfires left unattended? What is the availability of firefighting resources?’” he said.
McCauley said weekly updates aren’t effective.
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“The Schultz Fire came too soon for their Monday meeting,” she said. “If they met two days sooner, maybe we could have avoided it.”
Fire officials have said wildfire potential is high in the southeastern corner of the state and in elevations above 3,500 feet with dense woodlands. More than a million acres burned around Arizona last year.
Paige Rockett, public affairs officer for the Tonto National Forest, said Campfires Limited’s proposal is simply not workable.
“We have six national forests and at least four ecosystems. When there’s snow in one, it’s 90 degrees in another,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to impose restrictions on somewhere that doesn’t need them, we can’t do a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Leaverton, with the Forest Service’s Southwestern District, said he can understand where the group is coming from.
“We are as sensitive to the catastrophic impacts of wildfire as they are,” he said. “But we have a clear process with the interagency fire community that takes into consideration the risk of bad fire and the needs of people to use the national forest.”
Luann Meek, another Campfires Limited founder, said the safest thing to do is relieve the Forest Service of having to determine when campfire should and shouldn’t be allowed during wildfire season.
“This campfire issue is just too dangerous,” she said. “Most people really don’t know how to put a campfire out.”