Forest Service Uses Night Vision to Crack Down on Fire Violators

PHOENIX (AP) -- State police aircraft, their pilots wearing night-vision goggles, are flying night patrols over some Arizona national forests looking for campers ignoring bans on campfires.

Restrictions on campfires and smoking were announced by the Forest Service last week in hopes of preventing wildfires as the summer heats up. But forest visitors often ignore those restrictions, lighting campfires and cigarettes in restricted areas.

Officials in Coconino and Prescott national forests have an arrangement with the Arizona Department of Public Safety for state police to fly over forests and report the coordinates of suspected illegal fires. Once DPS relays the coordinates of the campfire or smokers, the forest service dispatches someone to issue tickets on the spot.

The Forest Service usually requests the help during holiday weekends and other peak visitor weeks.

``It's easy to see campfires with night vision. All you have do is turn your head,'' said Dave Brookshire with the DPS air rescue unit based in Flagstaff.

Even lit cigarettes can be visible up to a mile away, he said.

Coconino National Forest spokeswoman Raquel Poturalski said the patrols help forest officials enforce fire restrictions intended to prevent wildfires.

``People don't expect us to have patrols out at night. We'll make contact with them in the day, but they don't expect us to come back,'' Poturalski said.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Brookshire said crews spotted between seven and nine fires in the Coconino forest the first night they flew. The following nights, he said they only found one fire each time.

Poturalski said the forest has also increased ground patrols to catch those violating restrictions.

``We felt like we did a really good job of putting signs up and getting the word out through mass media,'' she said. ``But there are some people who don't think they'll get caught or say 'I'll be the one who's careful with fire.'''

Arizona's fire season started in May and the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Arizona State Land Department implemented the first level of fire restrictions last week on all or parts of their land. Those restrictions include no smoking and no open campfires, except in developed campgrounds.

Tickets for violating the restrictions generally range from $25 to $50. The penalties can climb as high as $5,000 and include jail time depending on how negligent or egregious the violation was, Poturalski said.

Tom Tobin, spokesman for Prescott National Forest, said his forest also asked for DPS helicopter flyovers during the holiday weekend.

``We've done it and will continue to do it as long as there is an influx of bodies,'' Tobin said.

Four fire citation were issued in Prescott over the weekend, and four abandoned campfires were found and extinguished.

Forest officials at Arizona's other national forests said they handed out a few citations but not as many as were issued in the more populated areas in Coconino and Prescott national forests, which sit on the fringes of larger cities.

``The potential here is very high,'' Tobin said, ``and we get very nervous.''