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Shortfall of snow leaves forest areas at higher risk for fires

The Cathedral Rock Picnic Area reopened less than a month ago, but due to near record-low snowfall on Mount Charleston over the winter, it’s already at risk.

“Our snowpack was well below average this year, and our finer fuels are already cured out,” U.S. Forest Service fire prevention officer Ray Johnson said. “There have been a number of wildland fires in Southern Nevada already this year, so as far as fire prevention goes, we are on fire restrictions for the summer, just like every other agency in Southern Nevada.”

That means no wood or charcoal fires, except in developed recreation areas such as the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area; no smoking except in a 3-foot-by-3-foot cleared area; and no fireworks.

Johnson said those precautions aren’t in place to protect only Mount Charleston’s recreational resources but the surrounding community, too.

“People need to pay attention because we’re concerned about the resource and the 400 homes up here,” he said. “There’s lots of things people don’t think about, like not parking in grassy areas because (cars’) catalytic converters can cause grass fires, and that’s something we worry about.”

Johnson was among a handful of U.S. Forest Service officials on hand to help cut the ribbon at the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area and trailhead last month, the first of several mountain recreation sites the agency hopes to reopen by the end of summer.

Closed since last May for restroom, parking lot and trail system upgrades, the area now features 80 picnic tables, a steel-riveted bridge airlifted from Michigan and a new amphitheater built around a wading pool first installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933.

The revamped picnic area’s May 21 grand opening saw several regional forestry representatives and nearby Nuwuvi tribal leaders join dozens of conservationists and hikers for a ribbon cutting with Smokey Bear.

Forest Service engineer Mike Balen said last month’s opening counts as a great start to the summer.

The greater Las Vegas area has ballooned by nearly 1.5 million residents since Cathedral Rock opened in the 1960s, and with nearly a dozen other major Spring Mountains National Recreation Area attractions closed for the rest of the summer, Balen expects an above-average number of residents to pay a visit to the newly opened picnic area and trailhead.

“The big points are that we’ve got brand new facilities. We want people to take care of them, and in the past, there’s been a lot of vandalism,” Balen said. “We want to stop that from happening. So we’re hoping with the new facilities, people will have more respect for this place.”

Balen, like Johnson, hopes a predicted uptick in visitor volume won’t translate to increased fire risk.

He agreed that below-average snowfall last winter only underscores the need for extra caution on the mountain during the summer.

“The fire danger this year is incredibly extreme,” Balen said. “I’m not an expert on fire, but I do know the snowpack this year was the lowest in 32 years. A fire up here would devastate this place, it would ruin it, and we just don’t want that to happen.”

Balen, Johnson and other U.S. Forest Service officials expect to continue heavy construction in portions of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area through the end of next year.

The agency, which has already reopened the Upper Kyle Day Use Area and the Cathedral Rock trailhead, hopes to reopen the Desert View overlook by the middle of next month.

The Kyle Canyon, Old Mill and Foxtail group picnic areas are set to reopen next summer, with the McWilliams and Mahogany Grove campgrounds expected back in service in 2014.

For more information on campsite closures or to learn more about Springs Mountains National Recreation Area, visit fs.usda.gov or call 702-515-5400.

Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter James DeHaven at jdehaven@viewnews.com or 702-477-3839.

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