Three steps can reduce the impact of wildfires - Albuquerque Journal

Three steps can reduce the impact of wildfires

State Forester Laura McCarthy

For years, climate experts have been warning that our planet is undergoing changes that would make extreme weather events more common – and, this past year, New Mexico saw those predictions come true.

Extremely dry and windy weather in the spring and early summer created the perfect conditions for what proved to be the worst wildfire season in our state’s modern history. Then, a mere weeks later, heavier than normal monsoon rains dropped nearly 20 inches of rain on parts of the state, flooding areas that had been scorched by the fires.

As our neighbors – many of whom were forced out of their homes for months – continue to recover from this disaster, the Forestry Division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department recommends specific actions that could lessen the impact of future extreme weather events on the state’s forests and communities.

These steps include:

• Updating the Forest Conservation Act to clearly delineate the Forestry Division’s authority to carry out such tasks as projects to stabilize steep slopes after they have burned, which contribute to the long-term health of forested watersheds.

• Creating a minor exemption to the state procurement code to streamline the process of securing federal funds for wildfire prevention and forest management.

• Providing funding for hot-shot firefighting crews to boost our chances of suppressing wildfires at the earliest possible stages.

EMNRD’s Forestry Division is the state’s lead agency for fire suppression and forest management on 43 million acres of non-federal, non-municipal and non-tribal land, namely the state and private lands. This important work was authorized by the Forest Conservation Act in 1939. However, this act has not been updated in 35 years.

New Mexico has enormous needs for forest fire suppression rehabilitation and repair, post-fire slope stabilization, erosion control, riparian restoration, and seeding and reforestation of burned areas after the historic 2022 fire season.

Updating the Forest Conservation Act will enable the state to provide better technical assistance to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate. This change has been proposed in the form of House Bill 195 in this year’s legislative session.

Senate Bill 206 proposes a minor exemption in the state procurement code that would make it easier to secure federal funds that have recently begun flowing to address the wildfire crisis. The federal government launched an initiative in the fall of 2021 to address the wildfire crisis with the potential to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to New Mexico counties, communities and landowners to prepare for the next bad fire season. For example, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 created a new competitive grant program for Community Wildfire Defense Grants with an authorization of $1 billion to be spent over five years.

While non-governmental entities are eligible to receive funding from these programs, and the NGOs provide critical support to local governments and communities to plan projects and get more work done, there is a hitch. The New Mexico state procurement code requires a competitive process for state agencies to pass federal funds to NGOs, which, in many cases, means NGOs have to compete through two duplicative processes. A narrow procurement code exemption could fix the problem by allowing the state to rely on the federal agencies’ competitive application and selection processes before contracting with non-governmental entities.

Finally, catching wildfires when they start and while they are still small is essential. New Mexico can increase its capacity for “initial attack” with more firefighting crews. We are urging the Legislature to fund two hot-shot crews and fire support positions for the Forestry Division to boost the state’s capacity to catch wildfires before they spread. These crews could put their expertise to work restoring forests when not actively fighting fires – doubling their value to the state.

These actions will be a good start to address the impact climate change is having on our state’s forests and surrounding communities. We urge all New Mexico residents to contact their elected representatives and ask them to support these proposals.

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