Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
As prescribed burns begin outside of Santa Fe, federal officials say their approach this year will be especially cautious and scaled back following last year’s massive Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire that began with prescribed burns.
And while they are not required to, some nonprofits that also conduct burns are taking heed.
The Forest Stewards Guild, a nonprofit that conducts prescribed burns and promotes forest conservation through education and advocacy, will conduct one of the first of the year. Southwest Associate Director Sam Berry said his organization will begin pile burns at Glorieta Camps outside Santa Fe as soon as the area receives at least 4 inches of snow.
“There will be smoke in the air, but we’re taking all the precautions we can,” he said.
The Forest Stewards Guild normally takes on a few projects in northern New Mexico each year, but Berry said it is taking on fewer projects as part of a more conservative approach. Although it was not involved with the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the organization is working to build back trust that Berry said was lost in the aftermath of last year’s wildfire.
“People still have a right to be concerned or interested,” he said.
The Guild is looking to connect more with the public this year to address concerns and make the process more transparent.
Berry also said it gets tougher every year to schedule the burns, and that the organization has already pushed them back due to wet weather in the fall and little snow accumulation so far this winter.
Julie Anne Overton, a Forest Service spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest, said her team also would approach prescribed burns with extreme caution this year.
“We’re kind’ve in uncharted territory,” she said, following the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, where two prescribed burns got out of control and merged into the largest fire in the state’s history. The fire lasted over four months, reaching 341,735 acres in size and destroying hundreds of homes in the Las Vegas area.
In response to the fire, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore paused all prescribed burns for 90 days starting in May last year to conduct a national review of the federal program. The report that followed made several recommendations to Forest Service personnel that included more thorough reviews of environmental and weather conditions, such as temperature, winds and dryness of the forest, ahead of burns. It also called for agency administrators to authorize burns day to day, as opposed to giving approval for longer windows of time in advance.
Overton said that means the windows when prescribed burns take place will be more in flux as climate change makes conditions more unpredictable.
She also said that, in the Santa Fe National Forest, the Forest Service plans to go above and beyond the chief’s directives, even past what the Forest Service has planned elsewhere in the region. “It’s probably going to be a while before we take a drip torch to the ground,” she said.
At the same time, there is already movement by New Mexico state lawmakers to restrict burns. Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, is pre-filing a bill that would ban prescribed burns every spring.
The Santa Fe National Forest posts regular announcements about prescribed burns on social media and encourages members of the public to join its news release list.
The Forest Service Chief’s report stresses that prescribed burns are still a key tool in preventing megafires in the future, while acknowledging that risk of fires escaping, though low, is always present.
“The alternative (to prescribed burns) is more large and destructive wildfires like we have seen the past several decades – a result of the combination of overgrown forests, climate change, a growing number of homes in the wildland-urban interface, and more than a century of fire suppression.”
Various groups, including nonprofits and federal agencies, coordinate on prescribed burns and though they are not required to, such nonprofits as the Forest Stewards Guild often follow federal recommendations.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story listed an inaccurate depth of snow that the Forest Stewards Guild will wait for before beginning pile burns at Glorieta Camps outside Santa Fe. The correct depth is 4 inches. This story has been updated.