FBN Web Exclusive —Camping by both Flagstaff residents and tourists can be a windfall for the local economy and provide local businesses with a boost during the summer season. However, the activity can also pose dangers and create problems for the city and the forests surrounding it, such as campfire-born wildfires and littering.
Paul Summerfelt, a wildland fire management officer with the city of Flagstaff, said a great deal of the fires he deals with are started by campfires that are left unattended.
“Most of them in the city are [started by campers],” Summerfelt said. “There are two groups of people we’re dealing with, too. One of them is the transients – the homeless. And [fires begun by transients] are most of the types of fires we have within the city. But, we have campfires – people do that as well – from people up from the [greater Phoenix area] who are camping and leave a fire. That’s not uncommon. We just had two last week.”
Although campfires are prohibited within the city limits, Summerfelt said Flagstaff is not completely safe from the dangers of a wildfire.
“Any fire that begins — given the right set of conditions, even if it’s miles from the city — could be a problem for us,” Summerfelt said.
The troubles Summerfelt is speaking of are not limited to physical damage to the city, and according to scenarios mapped out by his department, any harm to Flagstaff from a wildfire would have a ripple effect on the local economy.
“We did a study in 2003 [that asked the question], ‘What is the economic impact of a large fire on the Flagstaff community?’ And our parameters were, ‘What happens if we have a fire in the first week of June that damages or destroys three hundred homes in Flagstaff?’ [The fire would be] in the tourist season, [last] for several days, [and be] on the national news. What we found was that the economic impact of that was in excess of $60 million. The reason for that is that people who were thinking about coming to the Grand Canyon and Arizona through [Flagstaff] on vacation, they’re not coming. Conventions and meetings for a year out are cancelling meetings.”
Summerfelt said such a disaster is entirely possible.
“300 homes is a large number of homes, but it’s not out of the realm at all,” Summerfelt said. “If we had a fire move into Flagstaff into the Continental area or University Heights on the south side of town, we could easily have that occur.”
Despite their apparent usefulness, the combination of national forest area closures and fire restrictions can often hurt business for the outdoor stores in Flagstaff. And while Chatinsky said he wholeheartedly supports such precautions, he did acknowledge that closure and restriction decisions impact his financial outlook during the summer.
“I believe that we need to have those fire restrictions because of those people who don’t have common sense — and there’s way too many of them out there,” Peace Surplus Owner Steve Chatinsky said. “You have to have it. I’m good with it. It definitely affects our business, but it’s not all about numbers. It’s people’s lives when it comes down to it.”
One silver lining of forest closures, Harris said, is that it drives more tourists to stay in town and buy things from local businesses.
“When you do complete forest closures, which, of course, we’ve seen many times, it definitely impacts business,” said Keith Harris, the manager of Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters. “It can help in a very small way: that a lot of the people who are coming through who are not usually the ones planning on just staying indefinitely, but are just planning on staying a night or two. They’re kind of stuck in town – they’re not even allowed to go out in the woods anymore. So, we do get those people, but it doesn’t outweigh the disadvantages. Forest closures are a killer to the economy. People come up here to be outside.”
Harris said he dislikes calendar-based, annual fire restrictions that can drive away business from the city and the surrounding region.
“When they put [the fire restrictions] on a few weeks ago, it was getting in the 20s at night — that’s pretty cold,” Harris said. “You take all these people who are going to come up and go camping, and expect them to go camping without a campfire when it gets that cold, it’s going to hurt. They’re not going to do it. I think we really need to make sure that they’re justified in putting them on. I’m not a big fan of the set [restrictions] that run from this date to that date.”
Brady Smith, a forest public affairs officer for the Coconino National Forest, said that while the Forest Service has no definitive data regarding the impact of restrictions on tourism, those visiting the parks often inquire about them in advance.
“We receive many phone calls and emails any time there are fire restrictions, as people are trying to figure out if they can have a fire or not when they camp,” Smith said.
Summerfelt said he has no problem with campers and campfires, so long as the former is careful and responsible with the latter.
“I think that the way that can be done is that if they do have a fire, that it’s built correctly and the flammable materials are cleared from around the fire pit,” Summerfelt said. “And that they are only having a fire when conditions are not high wildfire danger or more … that they stay on site the entire time the fire is going, and when they leave, they fully extinguish it.”
Fellow Northern Arizona campers, Jon Novak said, are generally responsible with their campsites when it comes to putting fires out completely.
“People are usually pretty good about tending their fires, because everyone knows how dry the environment can get around here,” Novak said. “But, maybe that isn’t true because forest fires aren’t all the uncommon.”
Still-alight campfires are not the only destructive byproducts of irresponsible campers. Although there is no quantifiable amount of litter the Forest Service handles, Smith said he and others in the employ of the national forest handle a great deal of trash on an annual basis.
“There is no solid number I [can give] as far as cost goes,” Smith said. “However, I can tell you that we do not employ trash collectors. Employees often set aside their core duties and volunteer to remove litter from forest lands to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds of trash every year.”
Novak said he has seen extensive littering while camping, and tends to stay away from campsites where he knows other people will be there in great numbers.
“I’ve been to places where there are bits of trash around, but usually I try to avoid populated areas, places where students go to party,” Novak said. “Usually, what you find if you go to a place like that is just tons of beer cans.” FBN