New Mexico is Burning

NewMexico is Burning

18 April 2006

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Devastation, Charred; these are the media’s terms of choice so far to describe the 17,000 acre Ojo Feliz fire in northern New Mexico. The human-caused fire has been growing in hot and windy conditions over the last three days.

But can anyone say people were not forewarned? And is the fire really “devastating” for the grasslands and forests that have evolved for millennium with wildfire? I would argue that it’s desperately needed and refreshing for these fire-dependent ecosystems. The problem in this situation is people are in the way.

The government has been pouring millions of dollars into firewise campaigns, thinning, prescribed fire, and other actions to fulfill the mandate of the National Fire Plan. The Fire Plan, adopted in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes the essential ecological role of fire and sets direction for safeguarding forest-interface communities. The plan calls for allowing more fires to burn naturally in backcountry forests, thereby protecting the lives of firefighters, saving taxpayer dollars, restoring forest ecosystems and protecting communities.

The Fire Plan puts the burden on both private homeowners and the government to take precautionary steps to ensure that homes are saved and the lives of firefighters and homeowners are spared.

In order to prevent fire disasters from occurring, one of the primary strategies of the fire plan is for homeowners to take responsibility for their own safety in fire-prone forests. Effectively protecting homes from wildfire requires treating the home itself and its immediate surroundings- not increasing logging in our national forests.

The Forest Service has determined that the conditions in the 200 feet immediately surrounding a home are what determine its fate in the event of a wildfire. Firewise guidelines call for fire-resistant construction materials, trimming and mowing of flammable vegetation, removing wood piles and propane tanks from the immediate vicinity of the home, among other measures.

Western forest ecosystems, the wildlife they sustain and the abundant clean water they provide are seriously threatened by government fire and fuels management practices. Fire will always visit our forests, and we cannot fire-proof them- but we can fire-proof our communities.

Similar to flood plains, there are places where fire is certain and foreseeable. States and counties must adopt zoning and ordinances that deter building in the “fire plain” so as to avoid preventable disasters and enormous taxpayer bailouts.

Though we admire the efforts of many to help those who are the victims of fire disasters, we believe a whole set of financial incentives that promote development in fire- prone areas and put dwellers and firefighters in harm’s way need to be revisited.

With extremely scarce resources, the federal government will have to make critical decisions this year about where to suppress wildfires and where not to. Obviously, fires like Ojo Feliz burning through a heavily-populated wildland-urban interface should be extinguished or at very least brought under control. But, where fire can burn safely and accomplish much needed, fuel reduction, then it should be allowed to burn.

Although the Forest Service has produced fire management plans that allow natural wildfires to burn, many national forests are failing to implement those plans and still spend hundreds of millions of dollars on unwarranted fire suppression- wasting tax dollars, ignoring science and promoting unhealthy forests.

The Forest Service continues to suppress the overwhelming majority of natural fires. Since 2001, the Forest Service spent approximately half a billion dollars- an average of $99 million annually- to suppress 98 percent of wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico.

Forest Guardians believes there is a rapidly growing fire-industrial complex. Lucrative private contracts for aircraft, heavy equipment and labor- coupled with ever-expanding housing developments- threaten to drive a detrimental policy of fire suppression at all costs.

Despite fire management plans calling for the use of wildland fire as a management tool, few forests have ever done so. The Gila National Forest, a pioneer in fire use, is one of just three national forests that even consider the use of wildland fire outside of designated wilderness. That means fire is not being allowed to play its natural role in restoring health to our forests.

Fire’s early arrival this season will certainly test our planning and preparedness as envisioned in the National Fire Plan. We wish for the safety of our firefighters and those people with homes in our forests. We also believe that fires must be able to fulfill their ecological role, where appropriate, in the critical months and years ahead.

Fire is inevitable; we can’t fire-proof our forest, but we can protect our homes and communities. But we can not accomplish this in a state of fear. Fire hysteria will only allow more big trees and roads drilled into our wild forests and millions to be spent on suppression. Instead, we must adjust our habits of resource use and be prepared to live with natural, healthy fire.

Fire is Natural in Forests Because:

* Colorful aspen forests are created by large-scale fire.
* Some forests require fire to regenerate.
* Certain animals, such as woodpeckers, flourish in burned forests.
* Natural fire creates less flammable conditions.

Fire is Unnatural in Forests When:

* Unnatural fire can prevent old growth forest conditions for centuries.
* Unnatural fire can destroy rare species habitat.
* Unnatural fire can threaten lives and property.

By Bryan Bird, Citizen Journalist 4-18-06
Contact Bryan Bird at


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