SANTA FE — A proposal to ban prescribed burns in New Mexico during spring months was extinguished Tuesday by a Senate panel, after state and federal forest officials called such burns a vital tool and urged lawmakers not to limit the practice.
But backers of the legislation, Senate Bill 21, say changes are necessary after last year’s Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire complex, where a prescribed burn in April and a winter pile burn that had remained dormant grew together and scorched more than 340,000 acres — the largest wildfire in modern state history.
Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, the sponsor of the bill, said the spring months — from March through May — are often the windiest in New Mexico, making them the most dangerous time to ingite controlled burns.
“I believe this bill will reduce the chances of this type of fire ever occurring again,” Griggs said during Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Conservation Committee.
The committee ulteimately voted 4-3 to table the bill, however, with the panel’s chairwoman — Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos — casting the tiebreaking vote to halt the bill’s progress.
While the measure could be revived during the 60-day legislative session that began last week, the vote shows it likely faces long odds of winning final approval.
During Tuesday’s hearing, New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy testified in opposition to the bill but expressed sympathy to a Gallinas Canyon resident who lost her home during last year’s fire and had expressed support for the measure.
McCarthy also said prescribed burns can be a crucial way for fire officials to limit fire danger, describing them as a way to “fight fire with fire.”
“There are circumstances where prescribed burns are necessary,” she said.
Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association also testified against the bill during Tuesday’s hearing, and Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, questioned the state’s authority to ban the federal and tribal governments from conducting prescribed burns.
Those legal intricacies appeared be of little comfort to individuals like Mary Kay Root, a volunteer firefighter who lost her home during last year’s fire and said U.S. Forest Service crews should have known better than to start a prescribed burn given last spring’s windy, dry conditions.
“Everyone was aware that was no day to start a fire,” she told committee members.
Meanwhile, a separate bill authorizing the spending of up to $100 million to begin repairing roads, culverts and acequias in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon burn scar was approved by the committee with little debate on a 6-0 vote.
That proposal, Senate Bill 6, is backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office and would provide the state funds as zero-interest loans to local counties, cities and villages, who would have to repay the loans after receiving federal emergency relief aid.