Our state is on fire.
The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, since merging, had burned more than 64,000 acres in San Miguel and Mora counties by Friday, damaging and destroying hundreds of structures. And the toll on livestock, pets and irreplaceable family treasures is reportedly heavy.
The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire follows the recent McBride Fire that claimed the lives of an elderly couple who tried to evacuate their home and escape but failed to make it out safely. The fast-moving mountain range wildfire ultimately destroyed more than 200 homes in and around Ruidoso.
Elsewhere in northern New Mexico, the Cooks Peak Fire continued to rage, having burned over 54,000 acres in Mora and Colfax counties, while the Cerro Pelado Fire that began east of Jemez Springs burned more than 5,400 acres and prompted federal authorities to close parts of the Santa Fe National Forest.
It’s a horrific crisis. There have also been bosque and grass fires; New Mexico is going up in flames due to bone-dry conditions and strong spring winds. With little relief in sight, it may get much worse.
While causes of all the recent wildfires aren’t yet known, the Hermits Peak is the result of a terribly misguided prescribed burn that got out of control. Ditto for the Overflow Fire on April 7 in Chaves County, which burned 1,900 acres and took a week to contain. Fortunately, no structures were threatened by that blaze.
The state’s top forester is now saying agencies will most likely not plan prescribed burns in the spring — good news, if a little late.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week issued an emergency fire order calling on city and county leaders to enact local fireworks bans. They must. No one should be forced to evacuate their home — or worse lose it — because of an errant bottle rocket or sparks from a fountain.
The governor unfortunately lacks the authority to implement a statewide fireworks ban. Under current state law, cities and counties can ban the use of some fireworks – including rockets and Roman candles – at any time. But even with restrictions in place, individuals can set off allowed fireworks in designated sites – areas that are paved, barren or have water nearby. Sparklers, fountains and other types of fireworks can be restricted only in cases of “severe and extreme drought,” and local government entities have to issue a proclamation with the restrictions by June 14, at least 20 days before the Fourth of July. With conditions as they are, local governments should act quickly to issue bans.
And state legislators must revisit the state’s fireworks law. We cannot continue to have a patchwork system that’s always one step behind the flames. And we need our tribal leaders to be good neighbors and enact bans of their own.
Federal agencies are stepping up, with new fire restrictions on federal lands in northern New Mexico.
The governor is also asking for federal help to support additional firefighting ground crews and support officers. Given that a third of New Mexico is federally owned land, that’s not too much to ask.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., is cosponsoring legislation that could improve the federal response to wildfires. Heinrich says the FEMA Improvement, Reform and Efficiency Act would better prepare the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prepare for, and respond to, wildfires by allowing FEMA to pre-deploy assets during times of highest wildfire risk and red flag warnings. It has awaited consideration on the Senate floor since it advanced out of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in February. It’s time to move it forward.
On the other side of the political aisle, New Mexico House Republican Floor Leader Jim Townsend says the Forest Service’s decision to proceed with the controlled burn that sparked the Hermits Peak fire showed “a reckless disregard for the safety of New Mexicans and their homes.” The Forest Service’s motto is “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” The federal agency should consider changing the “you” to “we.” And it’s not just the Forest Service. The Bureau of Land Management was responsible for the prescribed burn that turned into the Overflow Fire.
For now, New Mexicans need to heed the mandatory evacuation orders and not just brace for, but try to prevent, the long fire season the governor is predicting. Clear the area around your home of brush and debris. Adopt a hard stance of no campfires, weed burning or fireworks that aren’t at officially monitored shows that factor in wind and weather (such as at the Isotopes) until the fire season has passed. Too much is at stake.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.