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This year saw more prescribed fires than ever before

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The U.S. Forest Service burned a lot of land this year, and it did it on purpose. Altogether, it set fire to just under 2 million acres. Forest managers say even more prescribed fires are now needed to reduce flammable vegetation and to address the U.S. wildfire crisis that a recent congressional report called urgent, severe and far-reaching. But not everyone is on board with this plan. From member station KUNM in New Mexico, Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's a chilly 7 in the morning at the U.S. Forest Service's El Rito Ranger Station, about 90 minutes north of Santa Fe. El Rito is a small town just on the edge of the mountainous Carson National Forest. A couple dozen people in flame-resistant clothes gather for a briefing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning, everybody.

FORDHAM: First, a crackly radio report on today's weather.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Inaudible). Good.

FORDHAM: It's good news. Today the team is beginning a prescribed burn. They've been waiting for it to be dry. And the wind forecast is crucial. It needs to be breezy enough to move the fire along, but not so windy the fire could escape. As team leaders step up to explain the day's plan, burn boss George Allalunis gives the big picture.

GEORGE ALLALUNIS: The intent of what we're doing here today is returning fire to the landscape. And the purpose is we want to help create a more fire-resilient community.

FORDHAM: All over the U.S., especially in the West, climate change has made fire seasons longer and forests more vulnerable to fire. Drought and heat mean more pests and dead vegetation. Plus, for more than a century, government policy suppressed fire in places where it happens naturally, so forests are overgrown. There are often people living right in these tinder boxes, as District Ranger Angie Krall reminds.

ANGIE KRALL: People make a living off of this forest, grazing cattle, getting their elk right now and bringing wood down to be warm for the winter.

FORDHAM: A controlled burn like today's is designed to burn flammable undergrowth and avert a bigger fire in future. This team has been doing a lot of them all year.

KRALL: I know a lot of us are a little tired, but I'm so glad to see you showing up the way you are here today.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's a good copy. Thank you.

FORDHAM: We drive up forest roads to a spot where a team unloads drip torches, puts on helmets and heads into the trees.

AARON LIVINGSTON: So that's one of our ignition groups.

FORDHAM: Aaron Livingston explains this is a test burn.

LIVINGSTON: Then if it's all favorable, we'll continue with ignitions for the day.

FORDHAM: They start at the top of a hill and zig-zag down, dripping burning fuel as they go. Foot-high flames leap up.

LIVINGSTON: We want to see that it's consuming well, but not too intense.

FORDHAM: This burn is intended to cover about 7 square miles of forest land. The team is divided into groups that will target different zones and later will monitor the fire's edges. If it escapes, they'll declare a wildfire, start building firebreaks with a pre-positioned dozer and deploy a fire truck known as Big Red. Meantime, District Ranger Angie Krall heads off to a string of small agricultural communities in a nearby river valley. She's on more of a hearts-and-minds mission.

KRALL: So on burns like this, it's really important for the agency administrator, the ranger, to do a lot of community outreach well in advance.

FORDHAM: That's press releases, speaking to community leaders, making phone calls and house calls, putting up flyers. Today she'll stop by a community library and lend an air filter to someone with asthma. And it's uphill work because a lot of people are opposed to prescribed fire.

KRALL: They don't like it. They don't want it. They don't want to see the smoke. They don't want to see any fire on the landscape.

FORDHAM: She tries to be humble.

KRALL: I never want to say we know what's best, we're the government. You know, that goes over like a lead balloon, generally speaking.

FORDHAM: And around here, there's a reason for that. Last year, about 50 miles away, two prescribed burns got out of control and became the biggest wildfire the state has ever seen. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burned hundreds of homes. Resident Timoteo Chacon (ph) sums up a lot of people's feelings.

TIMOTEO CHACON: Like the last time that it got away here, obviously they knew that it was a time for - a windy time, and they went ahead and did it.

FORDHAM: An agency report found one of the prescribed burns went ahead, despite the fact a nearby weather station was down, so crews didn't have details on local weather. Analysis after the fact said wind and humidity didn't add up to extreme fire danger over the entire controlled burn zone but could have over part of the area. The report also said that if burn bosses had listened to locals, they would have known that winds can change direction quickly in that terrain.

CHACON: Once you get kicked, I don't think it's very easy to forget. And it's the same thing with the fires. Once you get punished or you see what you've seen all your life get burned, you lose trust in the people that say they're going to help you.

FORDHAM: The fire raged for months. President Biden flew into New Mexico to take the blame, and promised compensation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think we have a responsibility as a government to deal with the communities who are put in such jeopardy.

FORDHAM: In the end, a law was passed that put the taxpayer on the hook for an estimated $4 billion of damage. So as smoke gathers in this valley, people do get nervous.

MARLENA FAYE: People right now, I think, all over New Mexico are very, very aware of what happened.

FORDHAM: Marlena Faye (ph) lives here in Vallecitos.

FAYE: I guess there's a sense that they're dangerous.

FORDHAM: But while the agency pledges to take all these concerns seriously, it's not going to stop burning. Under a wildfire crisis strategy, the Forest Service wants to treat up to 50 million more acres over the next decade or so with thinning and burning, in addition to what it already does every year. Forest ecologists say that's about what's needed to address the backlog in land that would have burned naturally over the many decades that fire's been suppressed. Today a helicopter drops incendiary balls into the center of the fire while its edges blacken and cool, and Krall keeps making her rounds.

KRALL: We had a bad thing happen last year on Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon. We have a - we are very humbled by that, and we have a long row to hoe to build back that trust.

FORDHAM: A national climate assessment published this month estimated western wildfire will get more severe until the middle of the century. Forest managers never promise that prescribed fire is without risk, but Krall says, one way or another, people are going to have to learn to live with more fire. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Vallecitos, New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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