Friday, September 22, 2023

The federal government has caused the largest wildfire in New Mexico. It had good intentions.

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Shreya Christina
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In the past, summer marked the beginning of the wildfire season. Colorado would see four months of fires; California’s fires were always burning between July and October† But that was the past. We’ve already seen it this year 29,966 wildfires burn through 2,790,609 acres nationwide, well above the 10-year average of 23,212 wildfires and 1,125,002 acres by this point in the year – and it’s only June.

One of those wildfires, the largest in New Mexico history, took shape on April 22. Or, to be more accurate, that was the day two existing fires—the Hermits Peak Fire and the Calf Canyon Fire—merged and grew into a fire that broke out on June 14. over 325,000 acres and destroyed minimum 366 houses and buildings. That’s startling enough, but in May, the US Forest Service made a standout Announcement: The agency had deliberately lit both fires in an effort to prevent future wildfires.

Fire is a tricky business. The fires of the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon both started as what is called prescribed burns, or fires used to cut forests of scrub and trees that can easily ignite and turn into fuel in a wildfire. This may sound counterintuitive to many Americans — after all, fire is also a cause of wildfires — but experts say prescription burns, also known as controlled burns, are both an essential tool for preventing wildfires and a return to a natural order that has been suppressed for centuries. With climate change bringing warmer, drier summers and more volatile wildfires, and as we look to be heading into a particularly destructive fire season, prescription burns are becoming more necessary than ever. They also become increasingly difficult to draw.

“We could have each ‘i’ dotted and each ‘t’ crossed, but unfortunately there’s still a 1 percent chance that something could go wrong,” Nathan Miller, wildfire inspector with the Santa Fe Fire Department, told Recode . “Part of the reason we’re in this now is because the forest is so thick and wouldn’t have had the potential to be softened by fuel-saving techniques like prescribed fire.”

Calm winds early in the year and moisture from winter snowfall made prescribed fires in New Mexico relatively predictable and easy to control, but this year is different. Last winter brought significantly less snow than the usual 60 to 80 inches, due in part to climate change exacerbating the snow mega drought in the southwest† That lack of moisture, combined with unusually strong winds in April and May and a heat wave currently gripping the region, is making the blazing conditions much less predictable than before. The Calf Canyon Fire started from a pile of wood that had burned in January, endured three snow storms, and was thought to be out but in fact had been smoldering underground for more than two months.

In response to the fires in New Mexico, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a break on all prescription burns in the National Forest System while the agency conducts a 90-day best-practice review. It was a move motivated as much by security as it was politics. “This has to happen,” President Joe Biden continued a recent trip to Santa Fewhere he promised the federal government would pay for the cost of the wildfire and met with survivors and first responders.

“Incidents like the one in New Mexico are front page news, and so people understandably conclude that it’s really unsafe and risky to do,” said Lisa Dale, a wildfire researcher and lecturer at Columbia University’s Climate School. But the vast majority of prescription burns are extremely safe. They are the result of careful planning, subject to constant monitoring from the time they start to when the embers get cold, with less than 1 percent of them escaping the containment like the New Mexico fires did.

“Delivering fire to the forest is like giving medicine to a sick patient,” Dale told Recode. “Just as there are side effects to drugs, there are sometimes unfortunate side effects to prescription fire. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”

Two firefighters in protective gear stand on a road and watch a fire burn on nearby grassland.

Firefighters guard a prescription burn at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in April 2021.
Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Forest Service’s statement says the agency performs 90 percent of prescription burns from September to May, so the break should have little impact on wildfire prevention targets, but experts are still concerned. Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok native firefighter and professor of geography and planning at California State University Chico, thinks the moratorium creates a huge missed opportunity. The 10 percent of burns that the Forest Service usually perform during the summer are still significant: The next 90 days are the best time for prescription burns in some parts of the country, and it probably won’t be when the break is over. is.

A year without fire means those forests could become overgrown with plants that could fuel wildfires or make future prescription burns harder to perform safely, and climate change also makes weather models less reliable – meaning it will be difficult to predict optimal fire conditions. for the future. “You’ve now missed a year to be able to do some of that work,” Hankins said.

Fire is an ancient and essential tool

This year’s wildfire season will likely only get worse as the summer heat kicks in, and most of the country’s focus will be on putting out those fires. But there’s a lot we can learn about how to stop those fires from starting and spreading. Contemporary prescribed fire is just the latest version of a form of stewardship practiced by indigenous communities for generations. North American forests sprang up around that fire; it became an essential aspect of the natural cycle. But centuries of colonial oppression of Native American culture in the United States led to forest policies that called for all fires to be extinguished as quickly as possible, whether deliberately instituted as acts of stewardship or started naturally by events such as lightning strikes.

That slowly began to change in the 1980s and 1990s, when federal officials realized that their policies were causing forests to become overgrown with scrub and trees fueling larger, more dangerous wildfires.

“We’re trying to start fires in these places so they’re more resilient,” Hankins said, adding that while climate change makes wildfires more dangerous and prescription burns more precarious, it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. “The climate has always changed, from the perspective of the indigenous people.”

In the past, that change has occurred on longer timescales, and indigenous communities would respond by paying attention to environmental changes and responding accordingly. The increased volatility of today’s climate change, Hankins said, is just more reason to pay close attention to how nature is changing.

One way to do that is to view prescription burns as something other than a fuel-reducing strategy. Fire can do much more than just remove vegetation that could fuel wildfires, according to Bill Tripp, the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. It can also clear up pests and rejuvenate the soil, creating healthier plants for later seasons.

Most prescription fires are “highly regulated” and require “militarist training,” Tripp said. That is, they target large crews coming into areas they may not know to clear large swaths of land, focusing on raw, quantifiable targets such as acreage and fuel loads. In that approach, the forest becomes something to manage rather than live in and with.

Solving the US wildfire problem should start at the local level.

Prescription burns instituted by agencies like the Forest Service are usually months of high-level planning efforts that sweep through patches of forest every few years. Indigenous fire practices, on the other hand, are based on constant local observation and repetition, with practitioners responding to subtle changes in vegetation and moisture. Rather than burning hundreds of thousands of acres at once, cultural burns of the type Tripp performs can focus on smaller areas but recur year-round. Over the course of a season or a year, all those fires could add up to an area equivalent to a larger burn — they’re just done more holistically, taking the local ecology into account.

“We don’t just burn to save fuel. We’re not going to do this once and be done,” said Tripp, who prefers the term “deliberate fire” to describe the burns he causes. “There’s all these other results that can be inferred if we slow down and do this right, and do it forever.”

Instead of spending months or years planning fires at the federal level, Hankins told Recode, local communities should be given the freedom to respond quickly to environmental factors, starting smaller but more frequent fires as and when needed. Forests would become healthier and more resilient to wildfires, and each subsequent prescribed burn would become safer, with less chance of escape.

Indigenous communities are particularly well-suited for such a role of stewardship and for teaching others how to participate. “Indigenous people are connected to the place,” Hankins said, “and it’s a lifelong connection, not just a career connection.”

However, much of the land in need of that kind of care has been stolen from indigenous peoples and denied access to the land for generations. Giving them more autonomy to set fires on purpose could be a step towards righting that injustice. This would require a change in the way forest management works at the policy level, and rethinking ideas about ownership that we have come to take for granted.

But that takes time and politics. In the meantime, the current system of prescription burns remains vital to control wildfires. Even if the Forest Service’s approach is flawed, those burns will be far more likely to stop the next massive wildfire than start it.


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