If you don’t mind a little smoke, the high country is open for business this Fourth of July weekend. Despite wildfires that have raged across Arizona’s lowlands, large crowds are still expected to retreat to the cooler mountain air.
And they can still sit around a crackling fire at most campsites around the state.
"I don’t think people should be afraid at all. It’s still pretty green in the mountain areas." said Debbie Maneely, spokeswoman for Prescott National Forest.
With a few exceptions, Arizona’s recreational areas, national parks and national forests are open to campers and hikers, though fire restrictions remain in place across most of the state.
In the Coconino National Forest, the only fire restrictions are in the lowlands, including Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon.
"If you’re in the ponderosa pines, you can have a (camp) fire. The higher elevations received a lot of moisture over the winter, even a few weeks ago we had a good rain up here," said Raquel Romero-Poturalski, fire information officer for Coconino.
In the Prescott National Forest, campgrounds were expected to be full by this morning.
Authorities are urging travelers to take a more "scenic" route on smaller highways in case Interstate 17 closes like it did last week because of the Sunset Point fire.
Merchants in northern Arizona said the fire couldn’t have come at a worse time — on a holiday weekend when many big events take place to draw tourists, such as Prescott’s World’s Oldest Rodeo, Payson’s Family Fun Day and Pine’s arts and crafts fair.
They worry that Valley media coverage of the wildfires may have unnecessarily scared people off.
"One TV station was sending people to another community in the high country, telling people not to come to Payson, Pine and Strawberry, that we would be ghost towns because of evacuations," said Tina Bruess, executive director of the Rim County Regional Chamber of Commerce. "And nothing could be farther from the truth."
Yet some people in those communities have asked why fire officials don’t shut down forests and cancel events to lessen the chance of a blaze.
Firefighters said northern Arizona’s forests are less at risk now because moisture levels are considerably higher there. They’ve worked with local authorities to determine it’s safe for visitors to use public lands travel to high-altitude communities.
Still, Prescott Mayor Rowle Simmon wants to make sure people take the extreme fire danger seriously.
On Thursday, he declared a state of local emergency, putting the force of the law behind the fire restrictions.
"We are in red-flag conditions. The fine fuels are drying up, the temperatures are high and we’re looking at real low humidity. It would just take a real small spark and we could lose 60 homes in a small fire," said Duane Steinbrink, wildland division chief of the Prescott Fire Department.
Campers are urged to extinguish campfires properly and completely. The correct way is to pour water into it, stir it with a stick and keep pouring water on it until you no longer feel heat.
"Some people are surprised at how long it takes to really put out a campfire. One thing of water before you go to bed is not going to do it," said Vinnie Picard, fire information officer for Tonto National Forest. "All it takes is a stiff breeze and we’re off to the races."
• Verde Ranger District east of Interstate 17 in Prescott National Forest
• Cave Creek Ranger District and parts of Mesa and Tonto Basin ranger districts in Tonto National Forest
• Fossil Creek area in Coconino and Tonto national forests
• The Agua Fria National Monument
• Campfires, charcoal grills and stove fires prohibited except in developed fee recreation sites where grills and campfire rings are provided
• Pressurized liquid or gas stoves, lanterns and heaters meeting safety requirements are allowed.
• Smoking prohibited except within enclosed vehicles, buildings or developed fee recreation sites where area is cleared of all flammable materials
• No fireworks
• Violations of fire restrictions or closures are punishable by a maximum $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail
• Red Rock Ranger District (Sedona, Oak Creek Canyon) in Coconino National Forest
• Along the Colorado River and within Imperial, Cibola, Bill Williams River and Havasu national wildlife refuges
• Coronado National Forest, including Chiricahua National Monument
• Prescott National Forest
• The Arizona Strip on the Utah border
• All state lands, excluding Wild Cow, Windy Point and Packsaddle campgrounds
• Apache Lake, within 50 feet of the shoreline
• Bartlett Reservoir
• Payson: Houston Mesa, Ponderosa, Upper Tonto, Christopher Creek, Sharp Creek
• Globe: Pioneer Pass, Sulphide Del Ray, Kelner, Ice House CCC, Pinal, Upper Pinal
• Pleasant Valley: Reynolds Creek, Rose Creek, Sawmill Flat
- Tribune writer Garin Groff contributed to this report