The number of acres burned in the Coconino National Forest has more than doubled from last year, according to Don Muise, the forest aviation and fire staff officer for the forest. Between January 1 and April 30 of last year, there were 16 fires, all human-caused. So far in 2014, 23 fires have occurred, and all but one were human caused. Muise spoke to us about what fire restrictions are in place to protect the national forest and why more fires are occurring this year.
What current restrictions are in effect?
We’re in what we call Stage 1 restrictions, and what that entails is fire, campfire, charcoal or coal-stove use is restricted except in a valid recreation site. The other thing that is prohibited is smoking, except within a closed vehicle, building or developed recreation site.
How are restrictions decided?
We try not to impose bans on fires just haphazardly; we have indicators that we use to tell us when conditions are such that we should do that. The fire restrictions that we use in the forest are a staged restriction plan, starting from the Stage 1 restriction all the way to Stage 4, which is a full forest closure. That’s a very difficult situation, closing off 1.8 million acres to folks who want to recreate on the national forest.
Is it normal to have restrictions early in the season?
We’re a little earlier than normal; last year we didn’t impose Stage 1 restrictions until about May 17, but because of the lack of snowpack this year and the dry conditions, it really forced us to start using restrictions as a prevention tool to prevent further starts. What we were seeing was the fires that we were getting — most of them human-caused — were getting up and running on us and making it difficult. What we call the “resistance to control” was getting tougher and tougher.
What preventative measures can visitors take to protect the forest?
It’s too bad that a few folks will ruin it for the many, because we get tons of visitors up here, and part of their enhanced recreation experience is having a campfire, and I can understand that. What happens, though, is there are some people that don’t understand or don’t care and won’t thoroughly put out their fire. They’ll just drive away and let it burn, and then the wind comes up and blows it around or it gets out of the containment. Our big pitch to folks is, when you can have campfires, make sure they’re completely out and completely cool to the touch.
What other information should visitors be aware of?
There are a lot of things that can and will start fires in the forest, including generators, chain saws, and motorcycles and ATVs without proper spark arrestors on their mufflers. So just be very aware that if they want the forest there to enjoy, then they’ve got to help us prevent the starts that could happen from any of those things.