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Science & Environment

Drought And Fire Threat Lead To Forest Closings

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Parts of the Southwest are in the midst of what experts are calling exceptional drought, which means beyond extreme. In Colorado, that's helping fuel massive wildfires, like the 416 fire still burning near Durango. So officials in the San Juan National Forest have taken the unprecedented step of preemptively closing down the entire forest until drought conditions improve. Similar moves are being made in national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. Dan Boyce reports from Durango.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Richard Bustamante says it was a hard decision. He's the fire management officer for the San Juan National Forest, and it was his recommendation to make.

RICHARD BUSTAMANTE: I didn't want to be that guy that recommends the first time ever that San Juan goes into closure, but I believe that we are truly there.

BOYCE: From his offices in Durango, he lays out 10 criteria the Forest Service uses to enact different levels of fire restriction. They're pretty technical.

BUSTAMANTE: One is a thousand-hour fuel moistures which are less than 12 percent.

BOYCE: But all basically describe degrees of dryness across the landscape.

BUSTAMANTE: The three-day ERC is in the 80th percentile.

BOYCE: Hit four of these benchmarks, you move into Stage 1 - campfires restricted to only designated spots. Then there's Stage 2 - no campfires at all. In the San Juan right now...

BUSTAMANTE: We're answering yes to all of those.

BOYCE: The forest is meeting all 10 fire restriction criteria, so Stage 3 - forest closure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're going to the ice cream shop.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right.

BOYCE: Earlier in the week, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and members of the state's congressional delegation toured downtown Durango, spreading the word this town is still open for business, despite the nearby forest shutdown and the massive wildfire burning about 10 miles up the road. Forecasters have been worrying about this summer for months. Hickenlooper says this area saw just 20 or 30 percent of average snowfall last winter.

HICKENLOOPER: Snowpack is half our reservoirs, right? Then you compound that with a dry spring.

BOYCE: It turns the region into a tinderbox just waiting for a match.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ENTERTAINER")

BOYCE: All of this makes it hard for communities dependent on tourism, like Durango. Pianist Lacey Black largely plays in restaurants where visitors tip well to hear old-timey Western tunes like "The Entertainer". But whether it's skiing or rafting or camping, the mountains and forests need water. It just hasn't been here and neither have those visitors.

LACEY BLACK: There wasn't the influx during the winter, and the people that stuck it out and were hoping for a good summer are now, it's like a one, two punch.

BOYCE: The restaurant she normally plays is closed right now because of the fire. She says she'll be lucky if she makes a fifth of what she does in a normal June.

BLACK: I'm running numbers and punching my calculator daily to make sure that I can cover all my bills.

WILLIAM ANDEREGG: We are looking at the future. It's arrived, and it looks like this - hot, dry and smoky from all the fires.

BOYCE: William Anderegg at The University of Utah specifically studies how climate change affects Western U.S. forests. And he says, yes, the extreme droughts the Southwest is seeing will be more common. We should expect more major wildfire seasons. And the effects of this lack of water go beyond that.

ANDEREGG: Yeah, I do think it's possible that, in plenty of regions, either when the forest dies off from drought stress or when a fire comes through that we could lose that forest from that area all together.

BOYCE: Standing outside my motel, it's actually raining in Durango. It's this light sort of misting rain that's expected to continue through the weekend. It should help firefighters make progress on the 416 fire. But a lot more rain will be needed before officials reopen the San Juan National Forest. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Durango, Colo.. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.