June 24, 2004
The biggest threat to Arizona’s forests this time of year isn’t the drought or lightning strikes.
More specifically, it’s campfires that desert dwellers build as they enjoy cool nights in pine country.
"This time of year, it’s the major cause of forest fires," said Bob Dyson, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
A campfire is blamed in the largest forest fire in Arizona this year: The KP fire in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forests has scorched 16,000 acres since it started in May.
That blaze is especially frustrating to forest officials. They aren’t sure if the campers were careless or if they didn’t know how to put out a fire properly, but the fire ring’s location added insult to injury, Dyson said.
"The fire was within feet of a creek," Dyson said. "They could have used all the water in the world to put out the fire."
That fire is still going, but contained. Dyson expects the fire will stay alive until monsoon rains arrive and douse it, probably in early July.
Until the monsoon season, fire officials across the state are keeping especially vigilant in prevention efforts. They’ve already restricted fires or banned them in much of the state. But because some campers ignore the rules, fire officials carry out extra patrols at night, including by plane, to look for fires.
"We’re that serious about prevention," Dyson said.
Rangers also spend a lot of time making sure campers know how to put out fires. Many don’t.
Some campers put dirt on the fire or just let it die down. But fires can stay alive even if they don’t generate smoke.
The heat can spark a fire days after a camper leaves, especially if the ground beneath has roots, pine needles or leaves.
Because of that, rangers check to see where campers go, then return later to make sure fires are out, said Ken Palmrose, a Forest Service prevention officer.
"When people leave for the weekend, there’s a concerted effort to keep looking, especially Sunday and Monday," Palmrose said. "That’s true of most places that manage public lands."
Campers need to have a shovel and at least 5 gallons of water for a fire. Pour water on the fire, mix it in, and add water. You may need to repeat this several times, and for a half hour.
Then put the back of your hand over the area. If you feel heat, the fire isn’t really out and could come back.
Campers in Arizona have done a better job in the last two years, as the number of human-caused fires is down in most places. In the Tonto National Forest, humancaused fires dropped 40 percent this year, Palmrose said.
But the 15 large Tonto fires this year have burned, on average, 2,500 acres.
Fire restrictions and prohibitions vary by location. For National Forest information, go to www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire or call (877 864-6985. For state park information, go to www.azstateparks.com or call (602) 542-4174.
Dos and don’ts of campfires:
Campfires can reignite days later if campers don’t put them out properly. Fire prevention experts say these tips can prevent most human-caused fires:
• Don’t just put dirt on a campfire.
• Don’t just let it die out.
• Don’t build a fire under trees. The ground beneath may be duff, which is decomposed leaves or needles that looks like potting soil. This material is flammable.
• Don’t leave a fire pit if you put the back of your hand over it and feel any heat. That could be enough to reignite a fire.
• Do bring a shovel or hoe if you build a fire.
• Do bring at least 5 gallons of water or a bucket if water is available.
• Do put out fires by adding water, mixing it with a shovel and repeating.
• Do test the fire ring by putting the back of your hand over it. Leave it only when you don’t feel any heat.