How many people have died in wildland fires in New Mexico in the past two decades? Seven – and six of them were from vehicular accidents related to our brave firefighters responding to fires. Four hundred people die per year on average on New Mexico roads, yet most of us drive almost daily without fear. So why such fear of wildfire?
Fire of varying intensities is normal historically in our local forests, including some high-intensity fire. It’s an essential part of forest ecology. The climate is getting hotter and dryer in the Southwest, so it’s reasonable to expect more fire as time goes on. Fire is largely weather-driven.
Rational consideration is needed to create a plan to adapt to increased fire. Rational means not responding out of fear, but through a thorough cost/benefit analysis of what will genuinely benefit the overall situation, and consideration of the consequences of our actions. Environmental law provides an excellent analysis process for determining if projects may have significant impacts, through an Environmental Impact Statement.
The U.S. Forest Services has announced a 50,000-acre thinning and prescribed burning project in our local Santa Fe area forest called the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project. Typical Forest Service thinning prescriptions require removal of over 90% of trees, leaving 35 to 60 trees per acre. The result is a sparse, barren and unhealthy forest. When new growth starts to return, it’s burned off again.
The consequences of such intensive thinning includes drying out of the forest, damage and disruption to wildlife habitat, erosion and soil compaction, sediment washing into waterways, and promotion of bark beetle outbreaks, which are already increasing in our forests. Also, turning forests into barren stump fields makes them virtually unusable for recreation.
Research indicates that any thinned area has only a 2-4% chance of moderating a wildfire while the treatment is still effective, and thinning treatments tend to not be effective during extremely intense fires, such as the Las Conchas Fire.
Recently, several environmental groups and a large number of citizens asked the Santa Fe County Commission to help bring balance and rationality to the planning of this large-scale project by passing a resolution supporting the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement. The Forest Service, along with other agencies and organizations, strongly objected, although the size and scope of this project clearly requires that level of analysis. Instead, they want to do a lesser environmental assessment, and start thinning and burning soon.
There was a tremendous push and pull between the Forest Service and associated interest groups, and environmental organizations and citizens doing everything possible to encourage the County Commission to pass the resolution supporting an Environmental Impact Statement, including speaking powerfully and eloquently at two County Commission meetings.
Fear won the day. The specter of the tragic Camp Fire in Paradise, California, promoted the fear, even though that fire was not due to lack of thinning surrounding the town of Paradise – that forest was highly thinned through logging followed by removal of the slash for firewood by local residents. It was a series of house fires due to the houses and properties not having been fire-proofed. The trees were mostly not burned. That tragedy speaks to the need for all forest community residents to take very conscientious fire-wise measures on their properties, and research shows that’s enough to protect homes from fire in the vast majority of cases.
The County Commission resolution was altered so it effectively supported the completion of the very inadequate environmental assessment, and then passed.
Perhaps the fear of fire is truly primal, but we need to be guided by rationality, and by the understanding that we only have one chance to get this right. In our warming and drying climate, severely thinned forests may never recover ecologically.
Support rational and comprehensive analysis. Tell elected officials and the Forest Service that you expect reasonable due diligence for analysis of this large-scale and highly impactful fuel-treatment project – an Environmental Impact Statement.
Sarah Hyden lives in Santa Fe.