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Natural Area Closed As Fire Prevention Measure

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. (AP) -- San Bernardino National Forest officials have taken the unusual step of closing a popular hiking and swimming area after finding evidence of dozens of illegal campfires.

For the first time in decades, Cucamonga Canyon has been shut down for the duration of wildfire season, which typically runs through fall, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

During a recent survey of the 1,650 acres, forest officials found evidence of more than 70 illegal campfires in the flats below waterfalls. With exceptionally dry conditions in the area near Rancho Cucamonga, officials say one errant ember could spark a conflagration.

Hikers who defy the closure could risk a $5,000 fine and six months in prison.

Ranger John Miller called it the most extreme fire-prevention tool available. And officials said they were weighing the possible closure of several other wilderness areas to public access.

"Is this a part of our management strategy? If we're set up to be in a multiyear drought, it definitely will be something we'll consider," Miller told the Times.

Similar fire-protection closures have been ordered in New Mexico and Arizona, according to Forest Service officials.

Firefighters have been preparing for a volatile fire season since blazes broke out across California in the spring.

The area surrounding Cucamonga Canyon, which many people call Sapphire Falls, is in its second year of a severe drought. So far in 2013, authorities have recorded a quarter of what is considered a normal level of precipitation.

Hiking trails offer just one way in and one way out of the area, and are surrounded on all sides by dense, dry vegetation. The canyon's steep walls would act as a furnace, funneling flames directly toward spots where people gather, officials said.

That realization, said Ranger Gabe Garcia, left forest officials with little choice but to shut down the canyon in August.

"It's the people's forest -- they should have access to it," Garcia said. "But in the end, I didn't have much of a choice. It's hard."