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Choosing battles

Firefighters move into position to battle the Colorado Peak Fire about 10 miles west of Santa Fe in June 2012. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Firefighters move into position to battle the Colorado Peak Fire about 10 miles west of Santa Fe in June 2012. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SAN FRANCISCO – Last year, with the lightning-caused Little Bear Fire threatening to rush into Ruidoso’s northern neighborhoods, it was common for many locals and even a New Mexico congressman to question whether the Forest Service could have done more to extinguish the fire in its early stages.

So when Forest Service officials talk of letting some wildfires burn to reap the benefits of reduced tinder and thinned tree stands, Ruidoso Mayor Ray Alborn said it gives him pause.

“You know, Mother Nature doesn’t always follow a certain plan, so, yeah, I would be very nervous,” Alborn said. “But these (Forest Service) people, that’s their business, that’s their livelihood, that’s their expertise, but, still, you can be nervous.”

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After coming in $400 million over budget following last year’s busy fire season, the Forest Service is altering its approach and may let more fires burn instead of attacking every one.

The move, quietly made in a letter late last month by Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, brings the agency more in line with the National Parks Service and back to what it had done until last year. It also answers critics who said the agency wasted money and endangered firefighters by battling fires in remote areas that posed little or no danger to property or critical habitat.

In this June 2012 photo, firefighters check piles being burned from salvage logging, along the edge of the Gila National Forest blaze in New Mexico. After coming in over budget following last year’s busy fire season, the Forest Service is altering its approach and may let more fires burn instead of attacking every one.  (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service Gila National Forest, Brandon Oberhardt)

In this June 2012 photo, firefighters check piles being burned from salvage logging, along the edge of the Gila National Forest blaze in New Mexico. After coming in over budget following last year’s busy fire season, the Forest Service is altering its approach and may let more fires burn instead of attacking every one. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service Gila National Forest, Brandon Oberhardt)

Tidwell played down the change, saying it’s simply an “evolution of the science and the expertise” that has led to more emphasis on pre-fire planning and managed burns, which involve purposely setting fires to eliminate dead trees and other fuels that could help a wildfire quickly spread.

“We have to be able to structure (fire management) this way to help all of us,” Tidwell told The Associated Press. “So that we’re thinking about the right things when we make these decisions.”

The more aggressive approach instituted last year was prompted by fears that fires left unchecked would quickly devour large swaths of the drought-stricken West, Tidwell said. New Mexico and Colorado reported record fire seasons in 2012, and with dry conditions remaining in much of the region, 2013 could be another bad year in the West.

Last year, wildland fires burned nearly 372,500 acres in New Mexico. The tally of destruction included the largest blaze in state history – the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire that scorched about 298,000 acres across the Gila National Forest and wilderness and destroyed more than a dozen residences – and the Little Bear Fire, which was the most destructive in state history by one measure, having burned 254 structures, including more than 240 homes, surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest.

Forest managers initially chose not to directly attack the Whitewater Baldy, and used roads, natural features and fire scars to contain the blaze. In the Lincoln, the Forest Service tried attacking the fire directly at first, but gusting winds caused the blaze to jump and run out of control in the dry conditions. Doubts about how aggressively the Forest Service attacked the Little Bear led one Lincoln County resident to call for an inquiry by the state Attorney General, who concluded the suppression effort was prompt and complete.

In all, the Forest Service oversees about 193 million acres in 43 states.

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But the “kill all fires” approach angered watchdog groups and environmentalists, who said it was expensive and ignored fire’s natural ability to rid the landscape of dangerous fuels and bolster forest ecology.

“This new policy gives a lot more flexibility. It takes the blanket policy where every fire was treated the same and gives fire managers more options,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.

“Chief Tidwell’s move should restore the confidence of the fire management community that all the training and technology that’s been invested to give fire crews the ability to work with fire to restore ecosystems will not be wasted by a return to yesteryear’s all-out war on wildfires.”

While all federal agencies operate from the same federal wildfire management policy, each has its own goals and ways of interpreting it. The National Park Service, for example, allows more fires to burn on its lands.

But letting fires burn also has its dangers, even in remote areas.

Last year, the Park Service allowed a fire to burn that started as a half-acre blaze in remote Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. What became the Reading Fire eventually required firefighters and ended up charring 42 square miles of forest lands as it spread outside the park’s boundaries to lands managed by the Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire damaged the region’s timber industry and cost an estimated $15 million to suppress. No structures were harmed.

While each agency involved had a different approach to managing fires, the confusion during the Reading Fire hammered home the need for agencies with different approaches to talk more often about their expectations, a review of the incident found.

Knowing that the Forest Service is stepping back from 2012’s more aggressive approach helps different agencies plan how they will respond to fires that have the potential to spread, said Eric Hensel, a National Park Service fire management officer at the Lassen national park.

– Journal staff writer Rene Romo contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page B10 of the Albuquerque Journal


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