When an article titled “Forest Service ignoring Santa Fe burn concerns” (Jan Boyer, April 23, 2023) popped up in my news feed, it caught my attention. I worked for the United States Forest Service for nine years, with the majority of that time spent fighting wildfires or taking part in controlled burns across 18 states, from northern Alaska to Florida, including New Mexico.
Drawing on my experiences, I found numerous problems with Boyer’s piece, in particular the statement that “There is little evidence fuel reduction prevents wildfires.” This statement mischaracterizes the goal of these fuel reducing burns. The increase in controlled burning, is based in part, on the realization that many wildfires cannot be prevented, but much of the destruction that they cause can.
Many people are wondering, what do these burns achieve? Shouldn’t we allow nature to run its course? This is a valid question, but unfortunately, for the greater part of a century, we have interfered with nature by extinguishing naturally occurring wildfires, such as those caused by lightning.
National forests that, under natural conditions, would have been exposed to fire several times during this period, have gone unburned. These areas are now overcrowded with trees and burdened with decades’ worth of fuel loading – dead limbs, downed logs, grass and brush. Think of it like a backyard burnpile that you add dead limbs and grass to yearly, and should burn every few years. Now consider carrying on like this every year, but waiting 40 years to burn it. Would that fire be of a manageable size and intensity?
Unfortunately, if these cluttered forests catch fire now, under the right conditions – hot and dry weather – the fire will burn with an intensity that destroys all trees and vegetation, regardless of size. Excess fuel provides the intense heat and high flame lengths to reach treetops, and the close spacing of these trees means that the fire can now spread from one treetop to the next with ease. This makes even larger trees susceptible to fire.
While hotter and drier climate conditions do account for fuels that more readily ignite, and a longer fire season, the majority of the devastation caused by recent wildfires could be mitigated by proper fuel reduction efforts. Choosing not to conduct these burns only increases the probability that any fires that happen on this ground in the future will cause environmental devastation that takes decades to recover from.
If anyone would like to learn more about these concepts, or the environmental considerations taken in regards to this particular project, I suggest taking a look at the 360-page document titled Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project Environmental Assessment, available on the Forest Service/USDA website, or via the link (https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/santafe/?project=55088 click the “Analysis” folder).
I also hope that these concerns were brought up at any of the numerous public input meetings that have taken place over the last few years. If you provided input, but it did not yield the result you hoped for, this does not mean that it was ignored. The Forest Service also has environmental scientists that they rely on when planning these projects. Finally, let us remember that citizens, nature conservancy groups, and the fuel specialists of the United States Forest Service ultimately share the same goal – a more healthy, balanced, and fire-resistant natural environment.