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Arizona forest closures leave nomads without places to stop

July 3, 2021 GMT
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Coconino National Forest employee Amber Wong checks on the road signs outside Flagstaff, Ariz., on Wednesday June 23, 2021. The Coconino National Forest is one of a handful of forests in Arizona that closed this week amid high fire danger as resources are stretched thin with blazes burning across the state. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)
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Coconino National Forest employee Amber Wong checks on the road signs outside Flagstaff, Ariz., on Wednesday June 23, 2021. The Coconino National Forest is one of a handful of forests in Arizona that closed this week amid high fire danger as resources are stretched thin with blazes burning across the state. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Raymond Otero lost his job and apartment in Tucson during the pandemic and recently set out north to escape the heat.

Wildfires around Strawberry forced him to leave, so he settled on a camping spot farther north in the national forest around Flagstaff. Then, the Coconino National Forest shut down over wildfire danger.

The forest will be closed at least through the July 4 holiday, leaving those who normally set up camp among the trees to save money or be in nature out of luck.

Many don’t have the means or inclination to stay at RV parks. Some headed to a Walmart parking lot, an unofficial weigh station for travelers and self-styled “nomads,” but they also were told they needed to leave because it’s private property.

But go where?

“I need to park,” Otero said. “And every time I move, it’s costing gas.”

Some windows of vans and RVs in the Walmart parking lot had green towing stickers affixed. Signs said “no camping.”

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“We’re not kicking them out,” said Nick Cersosimo, a Walmart manager. “It’s just that they’re not allowed here.”

Flagstaff Shelter Services offered people a spot in the parking lot, with showers inside, until the forest reopens, Executive Director Ross Altenbaugh said. Sedona and Cottonwood were coordinating with local groups to see what resources were available for people displaced by the forest closure.

The impact is broad across Arizona, with four of the five national forests largely closed to visitors and locals.

Otero said he was wary about staying at a homeless shelter or at a wildfire evacuation center, worried about his safety.

Allisha Little was hoping to crash in Flagstaff for a while to save some money, on the move from Mesa. Sitting on the stoop of her RV recently with her pets in their carriers, she fretted about moving from the Walmart parking lot, too.

“For most everybody here, including me, it’s a real struggle to find a place to sleep and try to be comfortable and not have to worry about where else are we going to stay,” she said.

Michel Harris, 77, has options. He is retired, so driving around the Southwest is his idea of fun. He spends winters in Laughlin, Nevada, and the warmer months in Sedona, Flagstaff and New Mexico aboard his 1978 Econoline RV.

He contemplated finding a spot in the Coconino National Forest tucked away somewhere but said it’s a risk with forest officials patrolling for any violations of the closure order.

“They’re advertising a $5,000 fine and six months in jail, right?” he said. “So that’s not worth it.”

Harris planned to wait out the closure for a few days before he would move on to Utah, where national forests are open.