We need every tool to fight wildfires today

Wildfire acts as a multi-spectrum environmental catalyst. A well-described burn will do the same.

Peak Fire Hermit, Jim O'Donnell Credit.jpg
Peak of a hermit fire, as seen from Holman Hill in Mora County, New Mexico, April 30, 2022. Photography by Jim O’Donnell.

by Steve Payne

We now know that the largest recorded fire in New Mexico history was started by a “prescribed burn” escape, or rather two. The Hermit’s Peak fire broke out on April 6 when unexpected gale-force winds blew sparks out of control.

Then the Calf Canyon Fire broke out on April 9 when similar winds ignited embers in the burning piles for the first time in January. Soon the flames merged. Together, as of June 12, they had burned 320,333 acres, with two-thirds of the fire perimeter contained.

New Mexico Gov. Michael Logan Grisham’s reaction has been to insist that federal agencies reconsider their policy on spring burns. US Forest Service chief Randy Moore responded by announcing a 90-day moratorium on burning.

Inevitably, the eruptions called for comparison with the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico that began as a described burn, then erupted from the Bandelier National Monument and into Los Alamos. It was the largest fire ever recorded in the country’s history Until now.

The planned fire is unlikely to be challenged in principle. It appears to be widely recognized that controlled burning is a legitimate source of good fire that can reduce the threat from potentially burning areas. States from Florida to California have reformed liability laws to encourage arson on private land.

The real threat to fire management is death by a thousand cuts, every collapse leads to a shutdown, every partisan group extracts a franchise, and together that burdens the practice too much to implement. There is always something that can cause the prescribed burn to close. There is no equivalent mechanism to compensate for the loss.

It’s no news that the western fire scene has become complicated. early twentiesThe tenth Century days, when one replied It turns off by 10 am the next morning It was enough, it’s been a long time. It was a great management hit: no wear, no bargaining, one size fits all.

But it made the fire scene worse by encouraging environmental rot and scorching fuel buildup. The change in policy was clear and necessary: ​​fire is inevitable, and we need to manage it.

Today, all aspects of landscape fires are manifold. Fire control does not mean one thing. It embraces many strategies. It may refer to protecting cities or grouse habitats. It can resemble urban firefighting, or for reasons of safety, cost and environmental health, it may mean containing fires within broad boundaries.

They vary from putting out an abandoned campfire to massive grazing fires that roll over the Continental Divide. This might include shoveling around municipal watersheds, or working with fiery streaks with nature in the wild. This could mean setting up an emergency backfire that could resemble a specific fire being conducted under urgent circumstances..

So, too, with the described burn. This could mean burning slanted or stacked pieces of thinning. Or it may refer to broadcast burns that range freely across swathes of acres to a landscape. It can mean burning to improve forage in tall prairies, to prune savannah pines, or to enhance the habitat of Karner blue butterflies.

Wildfire acts as a multi-spectrum environmental catalyst. A well-described burn will do the same.

It is not a choice between one strategy or the other. It’s the choice from a variety of styles that work in particular places and seasons. We need them all, not least because every strategy in and of itself can fail.

Fires escape their initial suppression at a rate of 2-3 percent. Scheduled fires escape 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. When escape occurs, its destruction makes news.

These numbers are unlikely to go down. We can’t control a wildfire as much as we can a blowtorch. All we can do is match the strategies so that the strengths of each strategy fill in the weaknesses of the others. The 2000 explosion in New Mexico made the described cremation process more difficult but led to a national fire plan. Twenty years later, the fire scene is getting bigger, fiercer, and tougher. The Hermits Peak fire would probably end up an order of magnitude greater than Cerro Grande’s.

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

Steve Payne is a contributor to book on the run, a non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating lively conversations about the West. He is a fire historian, urban farmer, and book author persin.

Articles You Might Like

Share This Article

More Stories

Get Your Forest Fire Alerts

We track wildfires and news from satellites, newsbots and Tweets