Santa Fe has some of the cleanest air in the country – well, until recent years. Now, there are days we can barely see the Jemez Mountains through the murky haze. Much of the pall often hanging over the Santa Fe area is smoke from prescribed burns, which has greatly increased this year and is likely to continue to increase due to the 50,566-acre tree-cutting and prescribed fire project the U.S. Forest Service has proposed for our local forest.
The effects of so much smoke in the air go far beyond obscuring beautiful vistas that we all enjoy, and which are a part of the beauty that draws tourists to our area. Smoke impacts our health, especially that of sensitive populations, like the allergic and chemically sensitive, those with asthma and heart disease, the elderly and children. Some are really suffering. Santa Fe area residents have gone to both County Commission and City Council meetings to testify about the serious impacts of prescribed burn smoke on their health.
In addition to particulates, wood smoke contains benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In New Mexico, smoke from prescribed burns may also contain heavy metals, including uranium, as the trees draw up heavy metals from the soil, which are volatilized when trees burn.
The Forest Service has not evaluated the amounts and effects of volatilized fire accelerants, such as potassium permanganate, gas and diesel, in prescribed burn smoke. The Forest Service document that evaluates the effects of fire accelerants states “Risks from inhalation exposures (of the various accelerants) were outside the scope of this assessment, requiring a complex analysis of simultaneous exposure to the products of burning vegetation to accurately depict the overall risk from inhalation at a prescribed burn.”
When presented with concerns about prescribed burn smoke, Forest Service spokespeople often state that we will have to breathe the smoke one way or another, either from prescribed burns or wildfire – as if it’s simply a choice of how we want our smoke. In reality, much of the prescribed burn smoke may be in addition to the amount of smoke from wildfires.
Trees that burn at high temperatures in wildfires burn many times more efficiently than trees that burn in lower-temperature prescribed burns, so much less smoke goes into the air per acre burned. Also, the probability that any fuel treatment will moderate a fire while it is still effective is only 1%, so most fuel treatments will not help moderate fires. Wildfire of varying severities is natural to our forests, and ecologically beneficial.
So far this year in the Santa Fe National Forest, there have been 11 prescribed burns or small fires greatly expanded with fire accelerants into what were essentially controlled burns, likely having produced over two months of smoky days. Although wildfires usually produce more smoke per day, they are infrequent. The Health Department recommends that those who are sensitive to smoke stay inside with windows closed during prescribed burns, but without a HEPA filter, indoor air contains 70-80% of the particulates of outdoor air. Also, we have lives – jobs, kids that need to be taken to school and we need to go out for many reasons. We can’t stay confined in our homes for so many days during the warm season.
The Forest Service must develop a system for documenting reports from the public when smoke is seriously impacting our health. Particulate and ozone air quality measurements are not enough and may not reflect actual impacts. There must be a real limit on the number of days per year the Forest Service burns, so those who are adversely impacted have time to recover and function between burns. The Forest Service is planning to burn an unprecedented 12,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest this fall, which will produce very large amounts of prescribed burn smoke over a 2½-month period.
WildEarth Guardians is not opposed to strategic prescribed burns and supports fire on our landscape, but the Forest Service must assess the impacts of so many burns and the chemicals used on human health and safety. Please urge our elected representatives to stand for us by encouraging the Forest Service to monitor and consider the effects of so much smoke on our health, and to complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project.
Sarah Hyden is the Santa Fe National Forest Advocate for WildEarth Guardians.