FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service extinguished a small fire being used in an indigenous group's religious ceremony in the Coconino National Forest and cited a group member Friday after saying the fire was in violation of wildfire restrictions.
The agency let the fire burn into a third day before putting it out and issuing ceremony organizer Shawn Mulford a citation.
The action was low-key compared with the back-and-forth debate over the past couple of months between the two sides — one intent on maintaining its religious way of life and the other intent on protecting the forest from wildfires in a time of extreme fire danger.
The Indigenous Elders and Medicine Peoples Council prayed for a couple of hours before a law enforcement official walked over and doused the fire Friday afternoon.
"It might be an end to this particular fire, but it's not an end to the prayers we're putting out in support of all people and all things," said Brett Ramey, who took part in the ceremony.
The ceremony is set to end Saturday. The council had told Coconino National Forest officials that they wouldn't put out the fire after receiving an ultimatum Thursday to do so or face legal action.
The group said the fire built in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks, which many American Indians consider sacred, was vital to the ceremony. The fire was used to send prayers to the creator, while making an offering of tobacco, and was only big enough to keep one log smoldering.
"This is our church," the council said late Thursday. "Why do you come with your non-(American) Indian beliefs and take it away? We can't stop our ceremony just because someone says, 'I'm going to give you a citation.'"
Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart said Friday he respects the council's cultural and religious rights but must err on the side of public health and safety. The group also had set up camp in an area closed to camping. Stewart said he would continue working with the group to find an alternate location and time for the ceremony should fire be involved.
"We must often make tough decisions such as closing an area to any camping and fire and understand this is a difficult decision for the council to accept," he said.
Much of Arizona is in fire restrictions because of drought and high temperatures. Two years ago, a 15,000-acre wildfire burned in the Coconino National Forest near the area where the group set up its ceremony. Forest officials currently are battling a 7,620-acre fire in another part of the forest near the Mogollon Rim. That fire is 85 percent contained.
The group said its relationship with fire and respect for it would ensure no flames would escape a pit dug 2 feet into the ground and encircled at the top with large rocks. A water bucket also sat nearby.
Many of Arizona's American Indian tribes also have restricted open fires on reservation land but make an exception for ceremonies with notice and proper firefighting equipment.
Robert Lapaca, forest manager at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Fort Apache Agency, said ceremonies are common in the summer — sometimes with a bonfire at night, an early morning fire and cooking fires. The agency requires a schedule for ceremonies and tools like fire extinguishers and water sources.
Some people even go so far as to rent fire engines for ceremonies, but Lapaca said it's not required.
"That's where the tribe is put in a hard place," he said. "They feel it's important for the ceremonies to occur and they, in turn, don't want to be the bad guy. They try to accommodate and ask that they take every precaution necessary to carry out their ceremonies."