After counting 84 abandoned, illegal campfires in the Santa Fe National Forest during Memorial Day weekend, the forest supervisor has ordered a full closure.
Expect to see flagging or barricades at trailheads, campgrounds closed, gates locked, and personnel on patrol at high-use areas beginning 8 am Friday June 1. All recreation is prohibited on the 1.6 million acres of the national forest, and violators risk a $5,000 fine. A bit of a grace period will allow for campers to clear out, but basically, gates will start closing Friday morning.
The news is hardly a surprise for anyone who saw the abysmal snowpack of what's now been roundly dismissed as "the winter that wasn't," or has noted the recent warm, dry weather.
"Their finger has been hovering over the Stage 3 button for weeks," says Madeleine Carey, avid marathoner and Greater Gila Guardian with WildEarth Guardians. "I'm bummed because I love to go run and ride my bike and take my horse up into the forest, but it's probably a good decision on the Forest Service's part."
In addition to seeing acute drought and fire danger at historic levels well ahead of the monsoon's predicted arrival in early July, Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor James Melonas cited the "widespread noncompliance" with the Stage 2 restrictions that went into place May 7. That order banned all fires and other human behavior that can ignite a fire, including lighting fireworks and using chainsaws or other combustion engines. Still, fire personnel have counted at least 120 abandoned campfires since that ban went into place. Forest Service personnel reported some putting out some campfires that, had they been left to burn unattended another half hour or so, might have created a very different situation.
"Under current conditions, one abandoned campfire could cause a catastrophic wildfire, and we are not willing to take that chance with the natural and cultural resources under our protection and care," Melonas said in a press release announcing the closure. Stage 2 stays in effect while the closure, or Stage 3, is in place, so anyone caught in the woods with a fire in coming weeks could be fined for violating both orders.
"Some people are careless, some people get drunk, some people just don't know any better and that's a tough problem to fix," Carey says. "The lowest common denominator is to close the forest when they think there are going to be problems."
It's the first full forest closure since 2013.
"It's always disappointing to not be able to go up into the mountains, but I understand the need and I'd rather have the mountains there when we can go back," says Peter Olson, race director for Endurance Santa Fe. To personally cope, he has stitched together the city's greenspaces, powerline access roads, and arroyos to make 6- to 8-mile trail runs that require only a few blocks on pavement and just a little bushwhacking.
"Take a little break now," he advises, "and go back when it starts raining."
He credits a healthy respect for wildfire to working as bureau chief for television news at Channel 4, shooting footage inside the fireline during Las Conchas fire.
"I don't want that to happen to our forest, to be there and see the houses burning and see just the devastation afterward," he says. "So I know how critical it is to keep people out of the forest when it's this dry and dangerous. I don't like it, but I support it."
As a national forest near some of the state's densest population centers, the Santa Fe National Forest sees heavy and frequent use that spikes risk factors. A study released earlier this year by the Forest Stewards Guild found that half of roughly 400,000 acres that burned in New Mexico in 2016 were from fires started by people. A closure both protects the people from being trapped in the backcountry if lightning starts a wildfire, and preserves the forest from humans.
"We understand, and actually I think are happy that we're going to play it safe and close the national forest down for a little while," says Sue Mally, co-owner of Santa Fe Mountain Adventures, which leads hikes and mountain bike rides into the national forest on trails including Alamo Vista and Rio en Medio. "Then if we have monsoon rains, that's great, and in July, maybe they'll open up again."
For now, they'll steer people toward places like Ghost Ranch and Tent Rocks, and encourage clients to start early in the morning to beat the heat. "While it does hurt us a little bit," Mally says, "we do, as I said, have options."
So far, the region has had relatively little fire activity, which means Santa Fe's wildfire crews are still close to home. They'll now be tasked with patrolling trailheads, according to Anna Bouchonville, public affairs assistant for the Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor's Office.
The factors used to predict fire danger indicate that the Santa Fe National Forest is at historic levels for the potential to see hot and fast-burning fires. Those conditions are aligning with the record highs set in 2002, when the Ponil Complex fire burned 92,000 acres near Cimarron, and are already above what was recorded June 1, 2011, the year of the Pacheco and Las Conchas fires. Right now, fuel moisture levels are at or below 5 percent, Melonas said during a news conference Thursday morning, adding for comparison that a two-by-four purchased from the hardware store would likely have a moisture level of about 12 percent.
New Mexico's state forests are also under fire restrictions that prohibit smoking, fireworks, campfires, open burning and open fires on all state-owned lands, effective Friday June 1. The City of Santa Fe issued similar restrictions on May 2 banning fireworks, burning vegetation or trash, bonfires, and charcoal barbecue grills in public parks or recreation areas. Hyde Memorial State Park is also expected to close its campgrounds in line with the Santa Fe National Forest closure. Campers already present will have until 8 am Monday to move on.
Reopening or lifting these restrictions will hinge on the weather.
"We're going to need a significant amount of moisture," says Bouchonville. "Hopefully the monsoons will be on time or possibly early."
This story has been updated.