Fire Restrictions Began Thursday

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Curtis Willis and his family escape the searing desert heat during spring and summer camping trips to the Rim Country.

But the Phoenix family's enthusiasm for the cool get-aways was dampened a bit by the announcement that fire restrictions have been imposed in the Tonto National Forest. The restrictions began at 8 a.m. yesterday, May 4.

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Campers will no longer be allowed to have fires for the rest of the season in Tonto National Forest.

Because of the ban, the Willis family can't build that roaring campfire they enjoy unless they camp in one of the developed recreation sites in the national forest.

Those sites include the Houston Mesa, Ponderosa, Upper Tonto, Christopher Creek and Sharp Creek campgrounds.

Building or using a fire or charcoal-burning oven or stove anywhere outside of those sites is forbidden.

Also outlawed is smoking, except in an enclosed building or vehicle, operating internal combustion engines like chain saws, discharging firearms except when legally hunting and off road vehicle or ATV travel.

Petroleum-fueled stoves and lanterns are exempt and may be used inside the restricted area.

Payson District Ranger Ed Armenta said the restrictions were needed because of the extreme dry conditions, increasing winds and low relative humidity in the national forest.

Also, the restrictions were implemented because of past careless acts of visitors who didn't use common sense in properly extinguishing campfires.

"We call it the ‘knucklehead factor,'" he said.

The Payson Ranger District's effort to prevent another catastrophic fire, like the Dude or Rodeo-Chediski, doesn't end with the restrictions.

Armenta has applied for federal severity funds, which will be used to bring more firefighting resources to the Tonto.

"With the dollars, we bring more engines, crews, aircraft and law enforcement," he said.

Some of those new firefighting crews have been stationed at critical points around the national forest including Pine, Strawberry, Christopher Creek and Indian Gardens.

Having the crews stationed in the vicinity cuts down the response time it takes crews to get to a fire, Armenta said.

Also, beginning today, the crews will begin daily severity patrols scouring the Rim Country searching for potential problems.

If firefighters take on a blaze and need more resources, they can immediately call upon two single-engine air tankers and one helicopter stationed at Payson airport.

The craft have the ability to carry 300 to 500 gallons of water to a fire.

The firefighting effectiveness of the helicopter, and any others that might be brought in, will be greatly enhanced when 10 huge water bladders are installed at strategic locations around the Rim Country.

The 6,000-gallon bladders will be filled with water, which can be used to replenish helicopter tanks.

The first of the bladders was installed April 12 south of the Ponderosa Market in Pine.

By the end of the month, the others are expected to be in place.

The bladders, which are federal government surplus originally designed to hold fuel for helicopters, were purchased by Gila County.

"With these early strike resources of strategically placed pots of water, we can make a difference," Gila County Supervisor Tommie Cline Martin said. "The helicopters can fill and dump, fill and dump."

Although fire restrictions have been imposed and fire crews are on full alert, officials might decide to do even more to avoid another devastating forest fire by completely closing the Tonto National Forest.

Armenta said a number of factors go into the decision to close a forest, including weather, fire danger, winds and availability of firefighting resources.

For now, however, visitors can continue to enjoy the majesty and beauty of the Rim Country as long as they obey the fire restrictions. Violators are subject to fines of up to $5,000 and six months in jail.

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