Fire-Charred New Mexico Mountains Fuel Policy Debate

October 24, 2008

Along a twisting dirt road in the heart of New Mexico’s Manzano Mountains was a piece of property that caught Paul Davis’ eye. There was a lush meadow, a stream on one side and an expansive hill covered with towering pines.

This would be the perfect spot for his family’s home — a home that he and his father would build and where nearly 30 years of memories would be made.

“This was a natural meadow so the insurance company actually thought it was well protected when they came out. I didn’t clear any trees around the backside at all or that side,” Davis said, pointing to an area of the blackened landscape where his house once stood.

Davis’ home was one of six destroyed by the lightning-sparked Big Spring Fire at the beginning of the summer.

The blaze was the third one to hit the Manzanos in seven months. Each time, hundreds of residents were forced from their homes and people in nearby cities who could see the smoke asked how the Manzanos could be on fire yet again.

Environmentalists are pointing to the Manzanos as an example of why the nation needs to change its thinking about wildfire preparation and the way the federal government pays to put out the flames.

Bryan Bird, wildplaces program director for WildEarth Guardians, contends that land management agencies are throwing a lot of money at ineffective thinning projects and efforts to suppress nearly all fires on forest land.

“I think we need to completely reassess that approach to fire-prone forests, especially with climate change and the unpredictability and uncertainty about the future of forests and how fire is going to behave,” he said during a recent tour of the burned area. “There’s so much uncertainty that we just need to be extremely strategic about how we spend money.”

Experts agree that fire seasons across the nation are lasting longer, fires are burning hotter and federal, state and local budgets for putting out flames are getting tighter.

The Big Spring Fire and the other two Manzano blazes cost the Forest Service more than $9 million. Overall, the agency has said spending on fires could reach $1.6 billion this year, about half of its budget.

While federal land management agencies have long recognized the need to allow fire to burn in some areas, the problem is transferring that philosophy to decision-making on the ground, said Stephen Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University.

Pyne said a couple of bureaucratic generations have passed since the Forest Service and National Park Service began changing their policies to restore fire to the landscape and include it as a management tool.

“It’s not a case of whether we burn or we suppress, that’s not an issue any more. That’s over,” said Pyne, who began his career as a firefighter on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim in the late 1960s. “The issue is how do you make it happen and change the discussion.”

The federal government is taking a step in the right direction with its appropriate management response policy, according to the Oregon-based nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. The policy calls for fire officials to consider multiple strategies when managing a fire — for example, suppressing the flames on one side while letting it burn on the other.

“The new policy change recognizes that it is simply not humanly possible to attack all wildfires in all places at all times,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of FUSEE. “We must learn to work with and use the benefits of fire where we can, suppress it where we must, but become far more strategic and selective in the places and methods we choose to commit firefighters to aggressive suppression.”

Shifting gears on wildfire can’t happen soon enough, according to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. He said wildfires have charred some 58 million acres in just the past seven years.

“We are spending more, managing less, burning more and as a result, having to cut funds to other important resource programs such as recreation, fisheries and wildlife to battle these wildfires,” Domenici said.

To tackle the problem, Pyne said land managers cannot apply a one-size-fits-all approach to fire management.

“There are a suite of things we can do,” he said, depending on whether a fire is in wilderness or threatening a community. “To use a medical analogy, there are number of treatments — a little surgery, drugs, exercise, a mixtures of things.”

In the Manzanos, like elsewhere, decades of mismanagement have resulted in an overgrown forest that has made reintroducing fire a difficult task, said Arlene Perea, a fire information officer with the Mountainair Ranger District.

The district has used prescribed fire and mechanical thinning, but Perea said wildfires can’t be allowed to burn to clean up the forest because of the homes scattered throughout the area.

“Every fire that starts on this district is a suppression fire, period,” she said. “People question us, are you letting this fire burn? No, that’s not an option. You can’t drive hardly two miles without there being a private inholding in there somewhere with some sort of structure.”

Prescribed fires are also a challenge because of the legacy of Smokey Bear, the iconic cub that taught generations of Americans that fire was bad, and now because of the memories of the Ojo Peak, Trigo and Big Spring fires.

“It’s going to be tough this winter because if we get the right conditions we’re going to need to go back out and do some prescribed burning,” Perea said. “Out here, people are going to see smoke fly and are going to hit the roof.”

Because of the condition of the Manzanos and inclement weather at the time of the three fires, Bird said forest officials couldn’t do much more than watch the flames eat up some 26,000 acres and more than five dozen homes.

He said some of the burned areas had been treated previously to reduce the fire risk, but the flames still burned through.

“There’s almost nothing that can be done with these fires that are burning out of season and on the edges of the fire season when its drier and hotter on both edges,” he said. “It just speaks to the risk of living in these fire-prone environments.”

He likened the Manzanos to a flood plain. “It’s the same scenarios we had with people living in the Mississippi River flood plain. If people are going to live in there, how do we plan for that and prepare for that.”

Bird said it will be up to local governments to adopt building codes and zoning rules to help mitigate some of the danger. However, he said, homeowners also need to take responsibility.

For Davis, he would not have done anything differently to prepare for the Big Spring Fire. Some of his neighbors cleared a swath of land around their homes and they still burned, while others did nothing and escaped the flames, he said.

“If I build again here, if I build again in a deep forest I won’t clear a tree again either,” he said. “Fire’s a risk and it just happened to hit.”

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