We need all the tools to fight today’s wildfires

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Wildfire acts as a full-spectrum ecological catalyst. Good prescribed burns will do the same.

Hermit’s Peak Fire, seen from Holman Hill in Mora County, NM on April 30, 2022. Photo by Jim O’Donnell.

By Steve Pyne

We now know that the largest recorded fire in New Mexico history was started by one escaped “prescribed burn”, or rather two. The Hermit’s Peak fire died out on April 6 when unexpected gusts of wind blew sparks past the lines of control.

Then the Calf Canyon Fire spread on April 9 when similar winds fanned embers into piles of ignited burns for the first time in January. The two fires quickly merged. Together, as of June 12, they have burned 320,333 acres, with two-thirds of the fire perimeter considered contained.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s reaction was to insist that federal agencies reconsider their spring burn policy. US Forest Service Chief Randy Moore responded by announcing a halt to prescribed burning for a 90-day review period.

Inevitably, the explosions invited comparison to the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico that began as a prescribed burn and then exploded from Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos. It was the largest chronic fire in state history so far.

Prescribed burning is not likely to be challenged in principle. It seems widely recognized that controlled burning is a legitimate source of good fire that can reduce the threat to areas susceptible to burning. States from Florida to California have even reformed liability law to encourage burning on private land.

The real threat to fire management is death by a thousand cuts, with each outage leading to shutdowns, each partisan group getting a concession, which together make the practice so burdensome that it cannot be implemented. There is always something that can cause a prescribed burn to plug. There is no equivalent mechanism to compensate for the loss.

It is not news that the fire scene in the West has become complicated. The beginning of the 20e century days, when an answer turn off at 10 a.m. the next morning was adequate, are long gone. It was a wonderful administrative stunt: No confusion, no compromise, one size fits all.

But it worsened the fire scene by encouraging ecological rot and an incendiary buildup of combustibles. The change in policy was clear and necessary: ​​fire is inevitable, and we must manage it.

Today, all aspects of landscape fire are plural. Fire control does not mean a thing; it encompasses many strategies. This may refer to protecting cities or the habitat of sage-grouse. This may resemble urban firefighting or, for reasons of safety, cost and environmental health, it may mean containing fires within wide boundaries.

This ranges from extinguishing an abandoned campfire to breeding mega-fires rolling over the Continental Divide. This may involve bulldozing around municipal watersheds or working with firelines in the wilderness. This may mean triggering emergency backfires which may resemble a directed fire performed under emergency conditions..

So, too, with prescribed burning. This may involve burning logging residues or spoil piles from thinning operations. Or it can refer to diffuse burns that spread freely over areas ranging from an acre to a landscape. This may mean burning to improve forage in tallgrass prairies, to trim pine savannahs, or to promote habitat for Karner’s blue butterflies.

Wildfire acts as a full-spectrum ecological catalyst. Good prescribed burns will do the same.

The choice is not between one strategy or the other; it’s choosing from a variety of techniques that work in particular contexts and seasons. We need all of them, especially because each strategy can fail on its own.

Fires escape initial suppression at a rate of 2-3%. Prescribed fires escape at a rate of 1.5% for the National Park Service, or less than 1% according to Forest Service records. Managing natural fires has a similar failure rate. When a breakout occurs, however, its destructiveness makes news.

These numbers are not expected to drop. We cannot control the ignition of a wildfire like we can with a blowtorch. All we can do is juggle the strategies so that the strengths of each strategy offset the weaknesses of the others. The 2000 eruption in New Mexico made prescribed burning more difficult, but led to a national fire plan. Twenty years later, the scene of the fire has gotten bigger, meaner, tougher. The Hermits Peak fire will likely end up being an order of magnitude larger than Cerro Grande.

Inevitably, our future is very bright. The goal is always to find and use the right mixture of fire for the earth.


Steve Pyne is a contributor to Writers on the range, a non-profit organization dedicated to sparking lively conversations about the West. He is a fire historian, urban farmer and author of The Pyrocene.

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