SANTA FE — A bill seeking to curtail the use of prescribed burns in New Mexico’s gusty spring season is moving forward after being revived at the Roundhouse.
The legislation, Senate Bill 21, had stalled in a Senate committee last week amid concern about how it would impact forest mangers, farmers and others who use controlled burns as a tool.
But it was brought back after changes were made to the bill that would still allow prescribed burns could to be ignited in spring months — but not on days when the National Weather Service has issued a “red flag warning” signaling elevated fire danger.
Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, the bill’s sponsor, said in a Thursday interview the rare move to bring the bill back for consideration came about after conversations he had with Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and Senate Conservation Committee chairwoman Liz Stefanics, a Cerrillos Democrat.
While the bill still faces a long road to approval, he said its revival shows the legislative process works.
“This one means something to people,” he said of the legislation. “It shows the Legislature is paying attention.”
In its initial form, the legislation would have prohibited prescribed burns during spring months — from March through May. But some lawmakers questioned the state’s authority to bar the federal and tribal governments from igniting such burns.
Some state and federal officials also touted the benefit of prescribed burns, even though such a burn last year sparked the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire in northern New Mexico that ultimately scorched more than 340,000 acres — and hundreds of houses.
Sarah DeMay, who lives in the Jemez Mountains and a board member of the state’s Prescribed Fire Council, said her family has used prescribed burning for years to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.
“For those of us that live on the front lines within the forested lands in New Mexico, we really must be able to defend our own lands against the effects of high-severity wildfire, and to do this we really need the flexibility to utilize safe burn windows, spring included,” DeMay told committee members.
In addition, State Forester Laura McCarthy said fire managers typically do a test burn before igniting prescribed burns, along with holding final planning meetings to discuss conditions.
But some legislators said the revised measure struck a reasonable approach, with Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, saying, “I’m much more comfortable with this bill than what we had before.”
The Senate Conservation Committee ultimately voted 5-2 to advance the bill, with Stefanics and Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, casting the dissenting votes.
The measure now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee.