Drought, fires dry up Arizona town's tourism

Back country reopening, but Sedona remains wary

July 20, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SEDONA, Ariz. - It's hard to know which is evaporating more quickly in this quirky New Age town, the raindrops that occasionally spatter the famous red rocks or the tourists who usually fill downtown cash registers.

One thing is certain: They are connected in a way few thought possible before this summer.

The U.S. Forest Service is set to reopen thousands of back-country acres to lovers of the outdoors today after record drought and the fear of huge fires prompted their being placed off-limits more than a month ago. It was the first time the federal agency had closed Coconino National Forest, south of the Grand Canyon.

News of the closing, as wildfires began sweeping the West, dried up tourism. And if visitors did come to town for a look, most left quickly.

"The campgrounds took a beating right off the bat," said Rich Watkins, who was laid off from his job at the Pine Flats East campground last month. "People watching TV think that with all the wildfires, the entire state of Arizona is in flames."

Precautions taken by officials to keep people out of the woods reinforced that impression.

Yellow police tape strung between bushes and trees along roads and across trailheads made the town look like a crime scene. Hundreds of white-and-orange sawhorses blocked favorite vehicle pull-off spots.

Tourists hoping to take pictures of Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock and Oak Creek Canyon were forced to stick their cameras out the windows of their moving cars and hope for the best.

Police officers blocked the road that connects Sedona to Flagstaff to the north, and volunteers handed out fliers urging caution.

The economic slowdown spread from the campgrounds to Sedona's downtown. For the first summer anyone could remember, it was easy to find a parking space on the main drag in front of trendy shops selling New Age books and crystals. Hotels practically begged for customers on their signs, and restaurants offered two-for-one deals.

Merchants and residents living with this perverse fire sale said things couldn't be worse, then conceded that they could be because, despite the lifting of restrictions, the fire danger remains high.

"It wouldn't take much for this whole thing to go up in flames," said Barb Zeschke, a member of Friends of the Forest advocacy group and a volunteer at the visitor center. "Most of the locals won't go into Oak Creek Canyon right now because it's just too dangerous. You can't outrun a fire."

Sedona sits at the south end of the canyon. The outskirts of Flagstaff define the canyon's northern end. Red rocks rise thousands of feet on both sides, and only one two-lane road - Route 89A - provides access.

"In the afternoon, northerly breezes run up the canyon at 25 mph and it becomes a giant chimney," said Dan Merritt, a Forest Service employee. "You can go from the bottom of the canyon to Flagstaff in an hour, so how long would it take a fire to get there?"

Watkins and his wife moved their trailer from the canyon campground to a spot on the other side of town.

"If a fire ever got started, we wouldn't be able to get out," he said.

Some residents were surprised when the Forest Service announced that it would ease restrictions.

"You caught the rain here today, didn't you? Both drops," joked Bill Murdoch, a retired Santa Fe Railroad executive who volunteers at the Chamber of Commerce office and until today staffed the fire information area near Bell Rock.

"It doesn't make much sense to me to open the national forest, because we haven't had any rain. But I don't make the decisions; I'm just a volunteer.

Murdoch, Zeschke and others suspect that the Forest Service caved to pressure from the business community to save some of the summer tourist season.

"They're being shortsighted," Zeschke said of the merchants. "They'll lose revenue for several months, but they'll still have their businesses. If we have a fire, they'll have nothing."

The Forest Service says its decision was sound. Bruce Greco, fire staff officer for the Coconino and Kaibab national forests, noted improved conditions.

Daytime temperatures have fallen, and humidity has risen as the monsoon season begins. And, Greco said, "significant precipitation" has fallen over the region in the past several days.

Despite assurances, residents are uneasy.

"We've had a little bit of rain, but not enough to stop a fire," said Sandra Murdoch, who retired to Sedona 10 years ago from Chicago with her husband, Bill. "If we have a fire and everything burns, we'll have nothing to look at for 10 years. We won't live long enough to see it return."

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