Lawmakers focus on prescribed burns after disastrous fire season - Albuquerque Journal

Lawmakers focus on prescribed burns after disastrous fire season

A log burns in the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire on the Carson National Forest west of Chacon in May. Overgrown forests and a changing climate demand new strategies for using prescribed burns, New Mexico fire experts told state lawmakers at Thursday’s Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting in Española. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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Prescribed burns are an important tool for preventing wildfires.

But overgrown forests and a changing climate demand new strategies for using the tool, New Mexico fire experts told state lawmakers at Thursday’s Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting in Española.

State Forester Laura McCarthy said this fire season was an example of the “exceptional starting to become normal.”

New Mexico had nearly 40 “red flag” days in April and May. Hot, dry, windy weather fueled explosive fire growth.

“When we get into one of those years, we need to be extremely careful with prescribed burning,” McCarthy said. “As temperatures rise, fire behavior changes.”

Planned burns are under intense scrutiny this year after two U.S. Forest Service burns escaped to become the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burned across more than 340,000 acres, destroying at least 340 homes.

After a 90-day nationwide burn pause, the Forest Service made several changes to the prescribed fire program.

Burn crews must now use updated weather data and have more detailed plans for what could happen if the project goes wrong.

Rep. Kristina Ortez said she heard from northern New Mexico residents who want to eliminate prescribed burns after the devastation.

“I understand that,” the Taos Democrat said. “But I also believe that it is a tool that we must keep sharpened by using data so that we can continue to manage our forests.”

Prescribed burns have helped reduce the severity of several wildfires, including the Midnight Fire near El Rito, this year and the 2020 Medio Fire near the Santa Fe Ski Area.

Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, recalled a legislative trip to the Little Bear Fire burn scar near Ruidoso.

The 2012 fire slowed when it reached areas that were thinned by the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

“(Fire) is certainly an important tool, but thinning the forest is, as well,” Strickler said. “… The timber industry has got to be part of this.”

The Forest Stewards Guild helps train and assist with thinning and burn projects.

Eytan Krasilovsky, the group’s deputy director, spoke of the need to boost a rural forestry workforce to restore ecosystems that are “ecologically out of whack.”

“Our fire-adapted ecosystems need fire at different times and in different ways to be healthy,” he said. “That expands to our watersheds, as well.”

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