Opinion: We need all means to fight today’s forest fires

We now know that the largest recorded fire in New Mexico’s history was started by a runaway “prescribed burn,” or rather, two. The fire at Hermit’s Peak came to a halt on April 6 when an unexpectedly gusty wind blew the sparks out of control lines.

Then, on April 9, the fire in Calf Canyon came to a halt when similar winds fanned the embers in the piles first lit in January. The two fires soon merged. Together, as of June 12, they have burned 320,333 acres of land, with two-thirds of the fire’s perimeter considered contained.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s response was to insist that federal agencies review their spring burn policies. US Forest Service chief Randy Moore responded by announcing a halt to prescribed burning for a 90-day review period.

Inevitably, the explosions prompted comparisons to the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico, which began as a prescribed fire and then spread from the Bandelier National Monument to Los Alamos. It was the largest recorded fire in the state’s history—so far.

The prescribed fire is unlikely to be challenged in principle. It seems to be widely accepted that controlled burning is a legitimate source of good fire, which can reduce the threat from areas that may catch fire. States from Florida to California have even changed liability laws to encourage burning on private land.

The real threat to fire control is death by a thousand cuts, every accident leads to a halt, every guerrilla group wins a concession, and all of these combine to clutter the practice so much that it cannot be implemented. There is always something that can lead to the closure of the prescribed burn. There is no equivalent mechanism for damages.

It’s not news that the western fire scene has gotten more complicated. The days of the early 20th century, when one response—pay off by 10 a.m. the next day—was enough, are long gone. It was a wonderful administrative move: no confusion, no compromises, one size fits all.

But this exacerbated the situation with the fire, causing environmental rot and the accumulation of combustible fuel. The change in policy was clear and necessary: ​​a fire is imminent and we need to deal with it.

Today, all aspects of landscape fire are multiple. Fire control does not mean one thing; it includes many strategies. This may refer to the protection of cities or the habitat of sage grouse. This may be reminiscent of urban firefighting, or for reasons of safety, cost, and environmental health, may mean containment of fires within wide limits.

This ranges from extinguishing an abandoned campfire to extinguishing megafires raging across the continental divide. This could be bulldozing around municipal watersheds or working with natural fire lines in the wild. This may mean creating emergency backlights that may resemble a prescribed fire set in emergency conditions.

So it is with prescribed burning. This may mean burning a logging site or a dumping ground for trimmings from thinnings. Or it could refer to broadcast burns that spread freely over areas from acre to landscape. This could mean burning to improve forage in tallgrass prairies, to prune pine savannahs, or to create habitat for Karner’s blue butterflies.

Wildfire acts as a universal environmental catalyst. Well prescribed burns will do the same.

The choice is not between one strategy or another; it is a choice of many techniques that work in certain conditions and seasons. We need them all, not least because every strategy can fail on its own.

Fires escape an initial extinguishment rate of 2-3 percent. Scheduled fires are disappearing at a rate of 1.5 percent for the National Park Service, or less than 1 percent, according to Forest Service records. Natural fire management has a similar failure rate. However, when an escape occurs, its destructiveness becomes news.

These numbers are unlikely to fall. We cannot control the ignition of a wildfire like a blowtorch. All we can do is juggle strategies so that the strengths of each strategy compensate for the weaknesses of the others.

The 2000 explosion in New Mexico made prescribed burning difficult, but led to the National Fire Fighting Plan. Twenty years later, the fire scene is bigger, meaner, tougher. The fire at Hermit’s Peak will probably end up being an order of magnitude larger than at Cerro Grande.

Inevitably, our future holds a lot of fire. The goal is always to find and use the right mix of fire for the ground.

Steve Pine is an employee of Writers on the Range, a non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating lively conversation about the West. He is a fire historian, urban farmer, and author of The Pyrocene.

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