Learn not to burn -- or else

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, June 12, 2001 -- Sometimes, bad things happen that can't be helped. But when bad things happen because of human stupidity, well, that burns me up.

Exhibit A: This image, taken from the Northern Arizona University Rocky Mountain Research Station Webcam.

It's a clear day out here -- but as you can see, there's a large forest fire just north of town; that's where the smoke plume, moving from left to right across the photo, comes from. According to the US Forest Service, this fire, which has burned several hundred acres so far, was probably started by the remains of an abandoned campfire a few miles north of Flagstaff.

What it amounts to is that campers do not care. They think "other" people start forest fires. Or they're too drunk to care.

This time of year -- late spring and early summer -- is when we get most of our forest fires. And although we had a snowy winter this year, and there was more rain than usual in May, this year is no exception; we're in for a bad fire season.

Most of the fires are started by people (the others are largely caused by lightning). Put another way, most of them are entirely preventable. Last June, after a very dry spring, the fires got so bad that the Forest Service actually had to close most of the Coconino National Forest and other forests in northern Arizona. As soon as they took this step, voila!, the number of fires dropped to a small fraction of what it had been with the forests open.

Who cares? We're outta here!

What I'd like to know is, why is it impossible to go camping without lighting a fire? What's wrong with a Coleman lantern, if you need some light, and a propane or gas stove, if you need to toast marshmallows? What it amounts to is that people just do not care. They think "other" people start forest fires. Or they think forest fires are no big deal. Or they're too drunk to care -- when I see the remains of a campfire in the forest where I walk the dogs, there are usually beer cans all over the place.

The campers don't care because it's not their forest they're burning down. When they've had their fun, they're going to fold their tents and get back to California, New York, or wherever it is they came from. They've had their fill of "roughing it" in the great outdoors, and they're happy to get out of here. Meanwhile, we're stuck with the job of getting the fires put out, so they don't get out of hand and start burning houses down. [Update: On Monday, June 18, the Forest Service announced that it had identified the campers responsible for starting this fire. Turns out they're not foreigners at all -- they're from Flagstaff. That makes it even more inexcusable, because being from here, those people should know all about the dangers of not putting out a campfire. Fortunately, it looks as if they're going to be held responsible for at least part of the $3.2 million cost of fighting the fire. I hope the judge throws the book at 'em... ed.]

(While we're at it, why do people have to gather around the fire and gawk? The police dispatcher, overheard on my scanner, says that in the fire area, cars are double- and triple-parked along the road. These people seem to have no clue that they're getting in the way of the fire crews. Either that or they, like the campers, just don't care.)

No more playing with matches, kids

There are some sections of the National Forest in which fires are illegal, period. A couple of months ago, I spotted a campfire on top of the ridge out in the forest that adjoins our apartment complex. I called 911, and they sent a policeman over to confirm that there was a fire, after which they sent someone over to put it out.

Campers have shown that they can't be trusted with the privilege of lighting fires -- so it's time to take that privilege away.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted a tent in the same area. Now, I don't mind if someone wants to camp in the forest, despite the fact that you're not supposed to -- I'm not a complete wet blanket, after all -- but why do they also have to light fires? After the campers had left, I was out there with the dogs and discovered the remains of a campfire the they'd left behind. It was mostly put out -- but mostly isn't good enough. On a windy day, the fire could still have spread, and possibly burned nearby houses.

If law enforcement had the authority to bust anyone, anytime, who'd lit a campfire, the fire problem would be reduced to a fraction of what it is at the present time. So what we need is a permanent county- or statewide ban on campfires. Sounds drastic, but let's face it: campers have shown that they can't be trusted with the privilege of lighting fires, so it's time to take that privilege away. If the existing local campfire ban were extended to the entire National Forest system in Arizona and made permanent, it would save enormous amounts of money in firefighting costs. It might annoy a few campers, but that's their problem. They'd get used to it. Which is more important: A few extra tourist dollars, or safe forests, free of human-caused fires?

Copyright © 2001 John J. Kafalas

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