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Hikers cited for trespassing on Mount Lemmon after wandering into closed areas
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Hikers cited for trespassing on Mount Lemmon after wandering into closed areas

A dozen-plus people were cited and more than 50 others received warnings in the past week for violating federal orders closing off Mount Lemmon’s national forest area to the public.

The citations were issued to hikers and others who trespassed onto trails and other areas in the Coronado National Forest that are now closed until as late as Nov. 1, officials said.

The areas were closed due to flood risks and other safety hazards caused by the Bighorn Fire, which was sparked by lightning in the Catalina Mountains on June 5 and contained on July 23 after burning 120,000 acres.

The Mount Lemmon Highway was reopened to the general public on Saturday, Aug. 1, while the forest areas remain closed.

Many of those cited or warned were stopped in the area of Windy Point along the Mount Lemmon Highway at about 6,600 feet elevation and in the Rose Canyon area at about 8,000 feet elevation, the Forest Service said.

Under federal law, those violating the closure can be fined up to $5,000 for individuals or $10,000 for organizations, and/or be sentenced to imprisonment of up to six months, the Forest Service said.

“We consider violating the order to be very serious. The closure order is in place for public health and safety because there are hazards in the burn scar area,” said Forest Service spokeswoman Dorilis Camacho Torres. “People can get seriously injured or lose their life due to some of these hazards.”

To illustrate the hazards to people who stray into the Catalinas’ wildlands, the Forest Service pointed to a half-dozen photos and a video showing downed tree branches, trunks, logs, rocks and other debris blocking unidentified hiking trails on the mountain.

“We want the public to know that the hazards in the burn scar are real and that the closure order is for public health and safety,” Torres said.

Officers have discretion in the field to issue either a citation or give the person a warning, Torres said. They can consider many factors which may include if the person should have known they were committing a violation, and do they believe that the person will comply in the future, she said.

The roads lead to and traverse areas prone to increased flash flooding, debris flows and falling rocks and debris due to severe burns and erosion from the Bighorn blaze.

Another 14 gates will be installed shortly afterward, on trails across the Catalinas that lead to areas containing waterways such as swimming holes that are prone to flash flooding, debris flows and other hazards, Torres said.

She couldn’t give exact timetables for the installation of the road and trail barriers.

Violators who get injured also risk the safety of first responders and rescue personnel who may need to enter the burned area to evacuate them, she said.

One person broke an ankle in the Catalinas’ closure area last weekend, requiring assistance to get out of the forest and be treated, Torres said. Forest Service officials had no other details on that incident.

In addition to flooding and other noticeable hazards like leaning trees and hanging tree limbs, the forest’s burned area contains less obvious hazards to hikers, Torres said.

They include burned root balls, whose top layers appear solid but whose underlying layers are hollow, which can cause a hiker to fall and get injured.

Some areas also have fire-hardened tree stubs in the trail corridor. Sharp pieces of broken aspen can pierce through a person if they accidentally step, stumble or fall on them, Torres said.

The Forest Service will restore the trails by putting up signs and removing logs before they reopen. But first, authorities must stabilize the forest against future erosion and storm runoff, once they get recommendations on how to do so from the Burned Area Emergency Response team convened to deal with the fire.

Overall, Torres said, “it can take forest vegetation a few years to recover from a fire like the Bighorn Fire.”

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. On Twitter@tonydavis987.

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