Experts urge community collaboration to prevent catastrophic fires

06 May 2021

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USA – Getting local people involved in wildfire season preparations, rethinking how communities build fire resistance and diversifying firefighting teams are key to preventing large-scale and increasingly destructive blazes, wildland experts emphasized in a talk this week hosted by the Nature Conservancy.

“As last year’s wildfire season in the Western U.S. demonstrated, we really face a new reality in which millions of acres can burn in a single week, racing into towns, sending residents fleeing enormous plumes of unhealthy smoke,” said Marek Smith, the Nature Conservancy’s North America fire director.

He highlighted the nation’s escalating firefighter costs, as well loss of habitats and livelihoods, and the need for collaboration to address the issue.

The talk came as Santa Fe National Forest urged forest visitors, ahead of a warm and sunny Mother’s Day weekend, to behave responsibly in the outdoors — especially when it comes to building and managing campfires — to avoid sparking a wildfire.

The state and region are in a high-risk fire season, with some of the most severe drought conditions seen in years and windy weather patterns creating the perfect storm for a catastrophe, officials have said. While Santa Fe National Forest has not yet initiated fire restrictions, Lincoln and Gila national forests in Southern New Mexico are now under Stage 1 restrictions.

Expert panelists at Tuesday’s talk discussed the various tools that have proven effective in fighting fires and changing the way people think about wildfires.

One of the best tools is fire itself, said Elizabeth Azzuz, a member of the Cultural Fire Management Council, a community-based organization.

“Fire is family,” she said. “Fire is the greatest tool left to us by the creator to restore the environment.”

Another expert, Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s former chief of fire and park aviation, said it is crucial to recruit a more diverse group of team members to the West’s wildland divisions, which are predominantly composed of men.

Martin provides leadership for the Women in Fire Training Exchange, a series of live fire-training events that promote both wildland fire skills and networking opportunities for women and men.

“It’s no surprise that it has been a difficult road for women and minorities in fire management,” she said. Women and people of color bring a range of opinions and life experience that help “not just by putting fire out on the ground, but it really exemplifies the opportunities and the teamwork that really needs to occur on the landscape,” she added.

Community involvement, both regionally and nationally, is crucial for policy change, one expert noted.

“Fire resilience is really driven by local action, local people and local places,” said Annie Schmidt, a member of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.

Communities are all different and need an assortment of firefighting tools, Schmidt added, including information, outreach and wildland-urban interface assessments.

One local tool in Santa Fe is the development of the Rio Grande Water Fund. The 6-year-old initiative — a combination of public and private partnerships — was developed to help accelerate the pace and scale of forest restoration.

Collin Haffey, the Nature Conservancy’s forest and watershed health manager for Santa Fe, has been working with the fund since its start. He highlighted the destructive impacts caused by wildfires that are less discussed, such as debris flows, post-fire flooding and the degradation of local water quality.

The fund also supports a 20-year program to reintroduce “good fire” — or controlled burns — across 600,000 acres.

“And when we do that, we really see that the forest is able to survive,” Haffey said. “It’s adapted to these low-severity surface fires. When these fires burn through a prescribed fire or controlled burn, we don’t see any kind of catastrophic effects. Actually, we see a lot of benefit.”

Some of the 90 current signatories to the fund include Ski Santa Fe, Bosque Brewing Co., the city of Santa Fe’s Water Division and Jemez Pueblo.

“Ultimately, what we think we’ll do is be able to protect the source water for a million people in New Mexico,” he said.

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