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What factors determine if Arizona national forests close amid wildfire season

Coconino and Kaibab Nationa Forests are not currently completely closed off to visitors. Officials say they plan to stay open as long as possible.
Published: Jun. 16, 2022 at 9:54 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - As crews continue to fight the Pipeline and Haywire fires, many areas across the state are under fire restrictions. As a whole, both the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests are in Stage Two Fire Restrictions. But each forest also has specific areas that are closed within its boundaries. “Closures are a last resort,” the Bureau of Land Management’s Dolores Garcia said.

So even as the Pipeline Fire and Haywire Fire burn thousands of acres in the High Country, Garcia says the plan is for forests like Coconino and Kaibab to stay open as much as possible. “Our adjacent communities rely on the tourism that a lot of our public lands provide,” she said.

And Garcia says it’s not just a financial incentive that leads to these forests staying open when fires are happening nearby. “So that we don’t have to evacuate campsites in the middle of the night, or that we don’t have to worry about moving people through one-way in one-way out roads,” Garcia said. “We’re trying to reduce the risk factors.”

Sometimes though, that does mean closing portions of national forests. Starting Saturday at 8 a.m. and lasting through at least September 1st or whenever the Stage Three closure order expires, the Walnut Canyon and the Pumphouse Wash areas of the Coconino National Forest will be closed entirely to visitors.

“We do strategically focus on areas that due to their topography, due to their proximity to high community values that are more at risk than other parts of the forest,” Coconino National Forest’s Randi Shaffer said.

Shaffer adds that factors like fuel moisture, humidity, and future weather patterns play a role in what parts of the forest stay open. But even if all of those aren’t at high-risk levels, she says parts of forests will close because the necessary resources to fight these fires aren’t available.

“That depends on what other incidents are happening at the time, and how many resources we can get given those other incidents going on in other parts of the region or even other parts of the country,” she said.

Ultimately, both Shaffer and Garcia say any actions by forest officials are made in the best interest of both first responders and the public. “We want the public to be safe,” Shaffer said. “But at the same time, these are public lands and we want to provide the public with as much access to their public lands as they can safely get.”