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Boundary Fire

Smoke from the Boundary Fire on Kendrick Mountain in 2017 billows up from behind a Forest Service fire engine.

And we thought Highway 180 was crowded during snowplay season.

A trip through Oak Creek Canyon Sunday encountered bumper-to-bumper traffic, wall-to-wall parked vehicles lining the roadway and most sections of the creek occupied by waders or fishermen – sometimes both.

We don’t begrudge the Oak Creek visitors their fun. Sunday was a beautiful summer day and most people were doing their best to cope with the crowding: waiting patiently in line for a parking space to open at West Fork and Slide Rock; slowing down for pedestrians forced into the travel lane for lack of road shoulders; and refraining from campfires at the picnic areas (they are banned except in campgrounds).

The last is certainly a good thing, given the elevated risks in the canyon and difficulty in effecting a timely evacuation. Fire danger across the entire Coconino and Kaibab national forests is rated very high after several days of brisk winds dried things out, and dispersed campfires are banned everywhere starting Thursday until the monsoon arrives.

That ban will certainly help out rangers in the Flagstaff region – they couldn’t keep up with unextinguished fires over the Memorial Day weekend. The last two springs saw June rains dampen the fire danger, but it hasn’t rained this year in June yet and no precipitation is in the forecast – with a high of 90 degrees by Saturday.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be campers in the woods – as we report today, summer transients in Flagstaff play a cat-and-mouse game with police that has them receive warnings about illegal camping inside the city limits, so they move for a while just outside the boundary into the national forest. But at least with a campfire ban, police and rangers alike will know that any plume of smoke is illegal, regardless of where the campsite is located.

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Smoke, unfortunately, could still be in the air as the Kendrick Mountain fire northeast of Flagstaff is actually encouraged to burn. We understand that forest managers are anxious to clear out dead and downed trees killed in the Pumpkin Fire 17 years ago. But using a lightning strike in June while fire danger goes to very high and Red Flag days are almost a certainty seems to be asking for trouble. What started as a 300-acre fire that could have been contained with some well-placed drops of water and fire retardant has now grown to nearly 6,000 acres and forced the closure of Highway 180 between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. And with 460 fire personnel already on scene, the plan is to ignite even more acreage inside a planning area of 15,000 acres.

The last time fire managers tried a similar June maneuver was on the North Rim in 2016, when the managed Fuller Fire got out of control and burned 23 square miles near popular Point Imperial, forcing the closure of Cape Royal Road. It also cost $10 million to contain, or 10 times the amount per acre for a managed fire.

We don’t know what the final bill will be for the fire on Kendrick Mountain. And maybe there is less red tape in letting a lightning fire burn and grow, then paying for a bigger blaze out of the firefighting budget instead of forest restoration. But for the peace of mind of the public and firefighters alike, we’d urge the Forest Service to amend its regulatory and accounting practices so that fire managers can light managed fires where they want and when they want – and still get the bills paid. The earlier in the fire season the better – leaving a margin for error before things get really dry and dangerous will make the smoke a little more tolerable for all concerned.

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