May 24, 2018

Restrictions in force as wildfire dangers rise in NM’s forests

Laura Paskus

Last Memorial Day weekend, Fire Protection Tech Zsuzsanna Gooris took care of one of the many abandoned campfires in the Santa Fe National Forest

Last year, we wrote about campers abandoning fires over Memorial Day weekend, a time when New Mexico’s forests experience a big bump in visitor activity.

Reporting that story was pretty startling.

All told, campers just in the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest abandoned 19 campfires over that three-day weekend.

Tagging along with fire protection officers for just one day, we saw unsafe campfires (some because they weren’t contained within a fire ring, others because they were way too big for their rings), people firing guns close to other campers and drivers of both trucks and ATVs in places they shouldn’t be. People left campfires burning while hiking; others left smoldering fires and trash behind after packing up altogether. Often, when fire protection officers showed up to advise people on safer practices—or even to help them—visitors became defensive or angry. That wasn’t always the case, of course, and the kids we saw were especially awesome. But as a longtime camper and backpacker, I was shocked by how casually many visitors to the forest seemed to treat the threat of igniting a wildfire.

This year, wildfire danger is even higher, and there are fire restrictions across the state.

Compliance with restrictions is one way forest managers decide if they can keep the forests open during fire season. In other words, if some people aren’t following the rules, the forests could be closed to everyone.

Right now, for example, campfire are prohibited under Stage 2 restrictions on the Santa Fe National Forest.

“But reasonable alternatives to campfires exist, such as the use of petroleum-fueled stoves, lanterns and heaters that possess on and off switches, and meet the fire underwriter’s specifications for safety,” according to Santa Fe National Forest’s fire management officer, Lance Elmore. “As long as all the restrictions are adhered to, and people are responsible, the public can enjoy the forest even during Stage 2 fire restrictions.”

The Santa Fe National Forest, Carson National Forest and Lincoln National Forest are all under Stage 2 restrictions.

In the Gila National Forest, officials implemented Stage 1 restrictions earlier this month, which means people can have campfires in developed campgrounds only and smoking isn’t allowed except for inside closed vehicles or buildings. (The website for the Gila National Forest, by the way, features a video about why wildfires have gotten worse, and what to do about that. Like in many of New Mexico’s forests, crews in the Gila work to reintroduce fire back into the landscape, where it plays an important role. But planned or managed fires are different from wildfires sparked through accidents or carelessness.)

Within the Cibola National Forest, different ranger districts are under various restrictions, ranging from Stage 1 to Stage 2.

It’s possible to start a wildfire without a campfire, too, by smoking, parking on grass or too close to brush and dragging metal chains off a vehicle or trailer.

Tribal governments also have fire restrictions in places, as do national parks and monuments and other land managers, like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Violating fire restrictions can mean a fine of between $5,000 and $10,000 and up to six months of jail time.

To see what’s happening statewide, visit You can find an individual forest website here, and if you’re unsure about the fire restriction stages and their definitions, visit here.

Laura Paskus

Last year, Ron Gallegos with the Santa Fe National Forest shared the ‘Campfire Commandments’ with NMPR