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Preparing for fire season in extreme drought

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Heading into an extraordinarily dry summer, fire managers are ramping up efforts to make this year’s fire season as mild as can be.

One way they’re doing that is by highlighting fire prevention through a new online tool developed by the Southwest Coordinating Group made up of partner agencies in Arizona and New Mexico.

Another is via prescribed burns, which recently resumed in New Mexico’s five national forests and Arizona’s Tonto National Forest after a temporary protective order for the habitat of the Mexican Spotted Owl was lifted late last year.

“When everything was under the federal injunction for the Mexican Spotted Owl, it hit pause on forest management activities, which included prescribed burns,” said Julie Anne Overton, a spokesperson for Santa Fe National Forest.

The pause lasted from mid-September 2019 to Oct. 27, 2020, when the injunction was lifted.

As a result, Overton said residents of northern New Mexico shouldn’t be surprised to see more smoke in the air from prescribed burns this spring.

“We’re trying to make up for that pause by … get(ting) rid of as much accumulated fuel on the ground before the fire season. We’re in a drought. Everything is so extremely dry,” she said.

There was a prescribed burn in Pacheco Canyon north of Santa Fe on Easter Sunday in the same area of last August’s Medio Fire.

Overton credited a previous prescribed burn for helping stop the Medio Fire, which was slowed by the burn scar of the prior burn.

“That one could have been gnarly,” Overton said of the Medio Fire, which still burned 4,000 acres of forest and threatened watersheds in the Nambé area.

The Santa Fe National Forest also scheduled a prescribed burn this weekend for the east part of Rowe Mesa, about 10 miles south of the village of Pecos, conditions permitting.

Another one is planned for April 12 in the Coyote Ranger District, where smoke may be visible from the communities of Coyote, Gallina, Mesa de Poleo and Youngsville.

Meanwhile, the Cibola National Forest last week announced plans to implement broadcast burns – a prescribed burn in an area with little or no forest canopy – over a total of more than 11,000 acres. The 902-acre Mesita broadcast burn is scheduled to begin in the Canjilon area on April 12 and last for about a week.

The goal, according to a news release, is to protect communities and reduce hazardous fuels before the 2021 wildland fire season.

Map-based tool

In addition to fighting fire with fire, forest officials are introducing what they call a new “map-based tool” they hope will help prevent forest fires.

While the Medio Fire and many others were caused by lightning, Overton said many others are caused by people, often due to abandoned campfires. So, in an effort to reduce and prevent human-caused fires, officials have created an interactive map that can be accessed from the website and provides information about fire restrictions.

“So, before they go camping in the Jemez Mountains, they can check the app to make sure there are no fire restrictions,” Overton said.

Click any place on the map and a box pops up that identifies the ranger district and which stage of fire restrictions are in effect.

“By providing a resource with accurate and timely information, the goal is to educate and increase compliance, therefore reducing preventable human-caused fires,” says a news release from the Bureau of Land Management.

Other agencies involved include the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the New Mexico Forestry Division.

Overton said with conditions so dry, this is the time of year everyone should be thinking about fire prevention.

“We’re looking at extreme drought across the state and all signs are pointing to an active fire season,” she said. “We’re also encouraging folks to take care of their own property, especially if they live in a wildland fire interface.”

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