Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Prescribed burns are a forest management practice that dates back centuries.
But what role do controlled burns have in New Mexico if agencies and communities are to avoid another disaster like the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire?
State and federal experts point to the need for more trained burn professionals and planning tools that account for a changing climate.
A U.S. Forest Service review of the burn that became the largest fire in New Mexico history notes that federal firefighting efforts often have a high “utilization of science and technology.”
But prescribed fire is “more or less a collateral effort.”
The Forest Service has paused all burns on forest lands while the agency reviews its policies.
Despite the pause, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said that prescribed fire must remain a tool in the agency’s toolbox to combat destructive wildfires.
“Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely,” Moore said.
The federal review and state experts outline at least three suggestions for making prescribed burns a safer and more effective tool:
• Build a robust multi-agency burn workforce
• Use better planning and modeling tools
• Adapt projects for a changing climate
The ‘all hands, all lands’ approach
Thousands of federal firefighters battle blazes across the nation each year.
But the federal review recommends that the Forest Service build up a separate workforce whose “sole responsibility will be to plan and conduct prescribed fire.”
An “all hands, all lands approach” recognizes that no one agency can manage the forest alone, said Forest Stewards Guild deputy director Eytan Krasilovsky.
“It really is a community of practitioners,” he said. “I think the events of this year just really solidify that we need to be communicating and working together.”
The guild’s youth corps program trains 18- to 25-year-olds in wildland fire and forestry.
Each fall, the corps embeds with crews on the Cibola and Santa Fe National Forests and the Jemez Pueblo.
Members learn how to thin forests and restore watersheds.
They also assist with prescribed fire projects.
“As entry-level wildland firefighters there’s a lot to learn and a lot of experience to gain, and we try to do that in a slow, deliberate way to a high standard and also with a good foundation in ecology and forestry,” Krasilovsky said.
Crews need modern fire tools
The federal review said prescribed fire training and education are often outdated and “do not incorporate the latest tools or the latest fire science.”
That gap can lead to subpar burn plans.
A plan for the Hermits Peak burn used models that underestimated the region’s dryness.
The plan also didn’t adequately consider how a fire would move through the forest if the burn escaped the project boundaries.
Most burn planning and modeling technology was developed under a wetter, cooler climate, said University of New Mexico biology professor and forest ecologist Matthew Hurteau.
“We’ve reached a point in the climate system, particularly in the Southwest, where vegetation is becoming much more reactive,” Hurteau said. “We have higher temperatures and less moisture, which makes fuels more flammable.”
Shifting burn windows
New Mexico crews will also likely need to reconsider when to burn.
Those project windows may shift from year to year.
Fall is now the most common time for prescribed burns in the state and the rest of the Southwest, with some spring projects if weather is favorable. “The fact is, with changing climatic conditions, we may need to look at moving around those windows, and the opportunity to do some burning in the winter months,” Hurteau said.
New Mexico in recent years has removed some legal barriers for burns.
The Prescribed Burning Act of 2021 protects private landowners from severe liability if their well-planned fire goes wrong. The law also created a training course through New Mexico State University for landowners and contractors.
At under $200 per acre, prescribed fire is the cheapest method for thinning overgrown forests, according to the State Forestry Division.
Tree cutting ranges from $500 to $2,000 per acre.
Still, the risks and extensive planning may dissuade groups from burning.
“Like we saw this year, you can have very big consequences when you put fire on the ground as a management tool,” Krasilovsky said. “We don’t take that lightly.”
Since the burns went bad this spring, state officials have warned of the risks of starting fires during New Mexico’s windy season.
State forester Laura McCarthy said that “there probably won’t be any more prescribed burning in the spring.”
Federal burn policies “do not match up with what we know about the climate crisis,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The governor said she thinks New Mexico still needs burns to manage forests and watersheds.
“But you better know where you are, you better know those fuel loads,” Lujan Grisham said. “You better … have access to water, you better have fire crews, and better consult states and local bodies of government.”
The Calf Canyon Fire also began as a Forest Service burn.
A January pile burn of thinned trees and brush caused that blaze. Embers smoldered for months – despite at least three snowstorms – and then resurfaced in April and merged with Hermits Peak.
The Calf Canyon Fire, Krasilovsky said, points to a need for “robust patrolling after a burn.”
“That way they can really monitor those things longer than we maybe thought we needed to, so we can account for the epic dryness we’re experiencing that allowed an event like that,” he said.
A nationwide burn pause
The Forest Service’s nationwide pause on controlled burns has prompted a wide spectrum of reactions.
Hurteau said the blanket action “is a terrible idea” for a country with diverse landscapes.
The forest ecologist recently did field research in California’s Sierra Nevada range.
Forest land burns were on hold. But the National Park Service proceeded with a large burn at Sequoia National Park.
“I think the Forest Service missed opportunities in other places that weren’t having these drought conditions,” Hurteau said.
Despite the backlash from Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak, federal agencies are still counting on controlled burns as a way to prevent more destructive wildfires.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directs $3 billion to reducing wildfire risk.
Meeting that goal means the Forest Service will likely need to burn as much as 4 million acres every year.
The federal report notes that the agency’s commitment to prescribed burns needs to match the resources devoted to fighting fires. Experts are awaiting any conclusions that may follow the 90-day pause and policy review.
The reckoning may be an opportunity to craft prescribed fire policies that consider long-term drought and community involvement.
“This is a terrible tragedy, and we really need to focus on making people whole,” Krasilovsky said. “The steps forward I don’t think are entirely clear to all of us yet. But when we do move ahead with burns, it needs to be after we’ve done some deep work listening, thinking and communicating.”