Early fire alert at Arizona national forests

/ Source: The Associated Press

The earliest fire restrictions ever for Arizona's national forests are now in effect along the Mogollon Rim.

Concerns about wildfire, highlighted by one of Arizona's earliest major fires ever, prompted the restrictions in three national forests.

The "February" fire, which started at an abandoned campfire atop the Rim on Feb. 6, burned more than 4,000 acres before it was brought under control 10 days later.

The Rim, a prominent line of cliffs that cuts across north-central Arizona, has been the site of some of the state's biggest wildfires, including the "Rodeo-Chedeski" fire, which burned 468,000 acres in June 2002.

Officials have been concerned for months that drought conditions, lack of rain and snow and an abundance of dry fuels could result in the worst fire season in memory.

While Arizona wildfires have either struck in the high or low country in past years, experts expect them to occur in both climates this year.

On Wednesday, Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency, freeing up $200,000 for planning efforts for battling the blazes.

The fire restrictions that took effect Thursday, including limited closures, cover the 42-mile length of Forest Road 300, atop the Rim, south to Forest Road 64, which runs along the base of the Rim.

Three national forests are involved: Coconino and Tonto on the west side, and Apache-Sitgreaves on the east.

The restrictions ban campfires, charcoal fires and smoking except in specific developed campgrounds.

The Tonto National Forest also restricts chainsaw use, welding, operating machinery without spark arresters and discharge of firearms, except by licensed hunters.

Stoves, lanterns and heaters using propane or other fuels are allowed.

The restrictions affect the parts of Arizona's forested high country that receive the earliest and heaviest recreational use.

Officials say as spring draws near, further restrictions are likely.