Extreme fire danger forces Colorado national forest to close | SteamboatToday.com

Extreme fire danger forces Colorado national forest to close

Wyoming and San Juan Hotshots work the 416 fire.

DENVER — Extreme fire danger prompted officials Monday to say they are shutting down San Juan National Forest, a rare tactic also being used in neighboring states as the Southwest struggles with severe drought.

National forests and parks in Arizona and New Mexico have already been shut down as precautions.

Officials in southwestern Colorado planned to close hundreds of miles of trails and thousands of miles of back roads to hikers, bikers, horseback riders and campers as soon as Tuesday to prevent the possibility of an abandoned campfire or any other spark from starting a wildfire. It’s the first full closure of a national forest in Colorado since 2002, which was another very dry year.

The closure will remain until sufficient precipitation eases the fire danger.

The move comes as the residents of over 2,000 homes have been forced to evacuate because of a fire that started June 1 in the forest near Durango and spread to about 35 square miles as of Monday. Authorities are still investigating how the fire started.

No homes have been lost although the fire came close to buildings Sunday night, authorities said. Fire managers credited advance fire mitigation work by homeowners for helping firefighters save the structures.

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Much of the U.S. West is experiencing some level of drought and the Four Corners region — where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet — is at the center of a large patch of exceptional drought.

In New Mexico, the Santa Fe National Forest, along with portions of three national park sites, closed June 1 because of the fire danger. The Santa Fe forest is among New Mexico’s most popular getaways. Portions of national forests in Arizona were also closed in late May because of severe fire conditions.

Full forest closures are not common and the U.S. Forest Service stresses they’re only done as a last resort.

The Coconino National Forest in Arizona shut down completely because of fire danger in 2006 for nine days. A 2002 shutdown lasted nine weeks, including both Memorial Day and July 4 holidays, and other national forests had closures that year.