Forest fires may impact New Mexico's forests and communities, but the federal government decided to allow prescribed burns to be the tool in wildfire prevention.
In May of 2000 the Cerro Grande Fire burned about 43,000 acres in the Bandelier National Monument in the Jemez Mountains, and last year the Las Conchas Fire burned 44,000 acres in its first 13 hours and grew to 156,000 acres in a few weeks. This wildfire became the largest in New Mexico's history and left more than 400 Los Alamos residents homeless and damaged several acres of government property.
According to Lawrence Lujan of the Santa Fe National Forest Department, prescribed burns have been used in the past to help prevent aggressive wildfires, "This is a fight against nature, and we are going to take the fuels now in a controlled state ... rather than waiting when it's dryer and hotter."
The goal of prescribed burning is to lessen the impact wildfires pose and to maintain healthy forests. "There's some debate whether or not Smoky Bear campaigns and 'Only You can Prevent Forest Fires' ... has done more harm than good in terms of the health of the forest," said Andrew Phelps, the emergency manager of Santa Fe.
Forest fires occur naturally, but by not allowing the fires to burn the underbrush and other fuels the chances of super fires like Las Conchas increases. "By not allowing more fires to happen and putting out fires as soon as they start, it creates the conditions to have more intense forest fires," Phelps said. The fires have more fuel to burn and create hotter and aggressive fires that are difficult to control.
According to Dan Wear of the State Forestry Division, "Prescribed burning has a definite use, and you have to look at it through different areas depending on the topography, depending on the goal of the landowner, depending on the amount of vegetation ... It can use prescribed burning to mimic a natural-occurring fire, which stays low on the ground and burns up the nettles, the leaves and dying trees," he said.
There are risks involved in conducting prescribed burns since prescribed burns can become uncontrollable. The Cerro Grande Fire is a result of a prescribed burn gone wrong, and the government is taking precautions not to allow such an event to happen again.
According to Phelps there is a lot of planning and forethought that goes into conducting a burn, such as taking into account weather conditions, type of hazardous fuel and impact of smoke on communities. The key is to have people proactive and informed about forest fires and prescribed burnings.
Lawrence said the goal is when wildfires happen, its impact will be less since prescribed burning has lessened the amount of fuels on the ground and it make it easier to protect communities, property and the health of New Mexico's forests.