SANTA FE, N.M. — Many of us quickly dismiss wildland fires that burn forest habitats and do little to disrupt human life, but when fires hit like California has experienced lately, our feelings are different. Over 200,000 homes had to be evacuated in southern California due to out-of-control wildfires raging in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Riverside and Los Angeles counties. This is just after northern California experienced record fires over the past two months, burning homes and vineyards throughout the Napa wine country.
It is impossible to determine at this time how many structures were lost. According to Wells Fargo Securities, insurance settlements could be $130 billion, which will result in higher premium rates. Human lives lost have been few, but the human tragedy is real. Even the loss of pets, homes and a lifetime collection of possessions is unrecoverable.
While drought and winds are major contributors to the California wildfires, local and federal restrictions on clearing brush from natural habitats have provided much of the fuel for this record loss. Unfortunately, this time, the fires destroyed residential and business areas, which will hopefully make environmental groups and authorities re-evaluate the real need to clean up fuel areas before fires do.
California’s Governor Jerry Brown has urged U.S. lawmakers to pay more attention to dealing with natural disasters such as fires, yet his own California Forest Service continues to restrict cleanup of brush and forest areas.
Germany has the best managed forests of any country and they place management of the public lands in the hands of local groups to clean and keep them healthy. While the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management manage each district independently, and have the authority to manage them properly by thinning and cleaning, they often kowtow to the demands of environmental organizations that choose to protect mouse habitat.
In New Mexico, Ruidoso was almost lost in the 2012 Little Bear Fire, which burned 44,300 acres, 230 structures and killed hundreds of livestock. The 2000 Cero Grande Fire caused over $1 billion in damage, destroyed 420 homes in Los Alamos and damaged over 100 buildings at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Much of this damage could have been avoided or mitigated by proper forest management. What will it take for our forest managers to responsibly modify their policies that lead to the destruction of property, livestock, wildlife, scenery and human life, as well as a large portion of New Mexico’s economy and the livelihood of a good many New Mexicans?
How can we protect Cloudcroft, Taos, Pecos and other high-risk communities from having their homes turned into ashes and the beautiful landscape to moonscape? One answer is lifting restrictions on forest use and issuing more multiple-use permits.
Forest districts need to implement more effective forest management, or will we continue to fiddle while our country burns like California by allowing environmental extremists to dictate management policy to government agencies?
It is time to take action and write our representatives and encourage our forest management officials to open our forests and BLM-managed areas to enact policies of proper cleanup and thinning.
If you are an environmentalist against proper forest thinning, think of the water pollution caused by these fires. If thinning is good for the watershed areas, it is good for the entire forest and hundreds of entrepreneurial commercial jobs can be created in the process. Our local communities, forest users and forest rangers hold the answers. California has shown us what will happen if we stay the current course.
Scott Chandler is a rancher and forest user in southern New Mexico. Tom Wright is a retired disaster relief executive and lives in Santa Fe.