Tonto National Forest Friday shut down most of the forested portions of Rim Country, alarmed by bone-dry, drought conditions and hot, dry winds.
The closure of the forest north of the Control Road, the Fossil Creek trailhead, and the areas along Forest Roads 583, 64 and 708 mark a dramatic response to what’s shaping up to be the worst fire season in Arizona history.
The closure also includes most of the Mt. Ord, Four Peaks and Three Bar Wildlife areas to the south, together with portions of Apache, Canyon and Saguaro lakes.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park remains open, although most of the surrounding forest is closed.
Even in the few areas still open, fire restrictions ban campfires and most other fire-causing activities, like smoking and using power tools.
Most of the Apache Sitgreaves Forest also remains closed and severe fire restrictions remain in place in the Coconino National Forest atop the Rim. The restrictions on the Coconino forest allow campfires only in developed campgrounds.
Violations of the restrictions can provoke a $5,000 fine and six months in jail.
The closures come as 4,600 firefighters continue to battle the 487,000-acre Wallow Fire near Alpine, the largest wildfire in state history.
Forest Service officials say that a single abandoned campfire probably caused the Wallow Fire, which has scorched a 760-square-mile swath of the White Mountains, including the area around the Black River, Big Lake and a host of popular recreation sites. The fire has consumed about three dozen buildings and forced the evacuation of Alpine, Greer, Springerville, Eagar, Nutrioso and other communities.
Crews reported the fire 29-percent contained on Thursday, but were bracing for predicted wind gusts of up to 45 miles an hour.
Meanwhile, a new, 10,000-acre fire on Thursday consumed 40 houses near Sierra Vista. That 14-square-mile fire added to the woes of firefighters in southeastern Arizona, who are also still battling an earlier, 309-square-mile blaze.
The simultaneous fires have taxed firefighters to the maximum, with only scattered reserves left to cope with any fresh fires.
Forest Service officials hope the closures will reduce the number of illegal and untended campfires rangers say they discover smoldering in the wake of campers every weekend in Rim Country.
The Wallow Fire has once more underscored the vulnerability of the drought-weakened, densely stocked forests to massive fires. Crews reported flame fronts 100 feet tall and crown fires racing from treetop to treetop as they battled the massive blaze. Backfires have helped protect vulnerable forest communities, so that the Wallow Fire has consumed only about 32 homes and four cabins.
An estimated 2,400 people from Alpine and Greer remained under evacuation orders on Thursday, although about 7,000 people from Springerville and Eagar were allowed to go home on Sunday.
The Wallow Fire has exceeded the previous record-holder, the 732-square-mile Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which in 2002 consumed 492 buildings and forced the evacuation of Show Low.
The massive blaze had provoked debate about whether the Forest Service should move more quickly to close the forests when fuels dry out.
Some residents have complained that the Apache-Sitgreaves Forests didn’t act sooner to ban all activities in the forest this year.
Forest Service officials retorted that the region received above-average snowfall and that as late as May 19, Springerville had six inches of snow on the ground.
However, a decent winter snowpack gave way to a warm, dry spring. Rim Country has received less than half the normal rainfall since January. As a result, the trees dried out quickly — still stressed from years of drought.
Forest closures pose a delicate balancing act in communities that rely heavily on tourism based on outdoor recreation.
Some Rim Country residents have criticized the delay in the closure of the Tonto National Forest, and questioned the decision to leave some areas south of the Control Road open, despite the accompanying fire restrictions.
Other residents are worried about how the closure will affect the summer tourist season, since most Rim Country businesses depend heavily on summer tourist traffic to get through the year.
Rim Country communities remain among the most fire-menaced in the nation, thanks to a once open, fire-resistant forest that has been overtaken by thickets of small trees in the past century.
Researchers from Northern Arizona University estimate that average tree densities in Rim Country have increased from 10 to 30 per acre to perhaps 800 per acre in the past 150 years, thanks to a century of cattle grazing, logging and fire suppression.
Previously, the ponderosa pine forests were dominated by scattered big trees separated by swales of grass. Low intensity grass fires burned through every five to seven years, consuming saplings and downed wood.
But when cattle grazing removed the grass, loggers cut the big trees and the Forest Service dedicated itself to stamping out forest fires, tree densities and downed wood built up on the forest floor.
The Forest Service has labored for the past five years to thin buffer zones around Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Star Valley and other Rim communities.
The expensive, hand-thinning of those buffer zones gives firefighters a chance of stopping a fire roaring in out of the thickly overgrown surrounding forest.
Work continues on roughing out a similar buffer zone around Christopher Creek and Kohl’s Ranch, with crews continuing to work feverishly along the control road this week.