Wildfire has been part of New Mexico for thousands of years, and humans have been living with wildfire in this region during that time. Today, thousands of New Mexicans live with unprecedented wildfire risk year-round.
How did we get to this situation? How can we return to a place of balance?
New Mexico is blessed with beautiful and ecologically rich grasslands, woodlands and forests spread across majestic landscapes and terrain. These lands evolved in a climate with dry seasons that bring lightning storms and regular periods of drought. Because the plants and animals of New Mexico evolved with fire, they are adapted to it. For thousands of years, wildfires spread across the land, ignited both by the thousands of lightning strikes that hit the ground each year, and by people. For generations upon generations, people used fire for cooking and heat, and also to clear agricultural fields, irrigation ditches, and to maintain habitat for game.
The sciences of anthropology, archaeology, fire ecology and forestry have documented the historical type, extent and frequency of wildfire throughout New Mexico. For example, early written accounts in the 1800s recorded smoky skies above New Mexico prior to large-scale grazing and fire suppression, while tree ring data show the exact years and locations of fires that spread across entire mountain ranges, scarring but not killing most trees.
However, since the 1880s, humans have made decisions that have drastically changed our forests and woodlands. With the arrival of the market economy and the railroad, millions of sheep and cattle arrived in New Mexico and overgrazed the understory. This stopped surface fire from spreading through the grass as it once did. The policy of fire suppression starting around 1910 put out most of the naturally ignited fires that had previously kept hundreds of seedlings per acre from growing. The result of these actions is that many seedlings grew into saplings and trees. Historically, many woodlands and forests that had between 40 and 80 trees per acre now are choked with 150 to more than 500 trees per acre. Most of these trees are water-stressed, have never developed the thick fire-resistant bark of older trees, are susceptible to disease, prone to insect attack, and now carry fire from the forest floor up to the crowns of the trees.
So if humans lived with wildfire for so long, why do we collectively as a society spend millions of dollars fighting wildfires and put the lives of our men and women firefighters at risk every year?
The answer is complex, but two key facets emerge. The first relates to our forests and watersheds, which are now more dense and susceptible to drought, insects and wildfire than ever before. This kind of wildfire is different. Scientific data tells us that in the past, most medium and large trees survived wildfire. Now, wildfires often kill large swaths of trees, which leads to spectacular erosion that removes topsoil and destroys streams. In some areas, like above Los Alamos, there are vast treeless areas that will persist for many years. When weather and forest conditions align to create large, high-severity wildfires like the 2011 Las Conchas Fire near Los Alamos, it is imperative that as a society we take steps to protect human life, property, endangered species, cultural heritage, aquatic systems, drinking water sources and other resources at risk.
The second reason our relationship to fire has changed relates to how we currently inhabit New Mexico. Homes, business and infrastructure are intertwined with natural vegetation that will burn during dry seasons. Often called the wildland-urban interface (WUI), it is a vast area that includes homes, subdivisions, whole towns and municipal watersheds. A recent national assessment estimated 190 million acres of WUI in the U.S., 44 million houses in the WUI, and 99 million WUI residents, or 32 percent of the U.S. population. In New Mexico, a 2010 assessment indicated there are 2.2 million acres of high wildfire risk in the WUI.
Do you think you might live in a wildland-urban interface?
If you think you might live in a WUI area, you can find out your risk rating by looking for a community wildfire protection plan for your county or area. New Mexico State Forestry works across the state to prepare communities for wildfire, and their website hosts all the current plans across New Mexico. Everyone who works in this field, from the thousands of volunteer firefighters across the state that put out hundreds of wildfires each year, to state and federal agencies like New Mexico State Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, the New Mexico State Land Office, tribes, counties, nonprofit organizations like mine and many others acknowledge that this is a monumental challenge no single entity can solve. As a result, we all work together, and I am proud to be part of this community of practitioners that includes firefighters, emergency managers, foresters, fire ecologists, community organizers and many others who are working year-after-year to address this challenge.
We work toward landscapes that are resilient to wildfire and to foster fire-adapted communities. Resilient landscapes experience wildfire, drought, insects and other challenges but can recover. A fire-adapted community prepares for, is ready to recover from, and is resilient to wildfire. It involves more than just firefighters and emergency managers; it includes homebuilders, landscapers, businesses, elected officials, community representatives, planners and others. A fire-adapted community is a long-term goal and is not a designation or recognition program.
Are you interested in becoming more fire-adapted?
Luckily, there are many simple things homeowners, business owners and residents can do, such as clearing flammable materials away from the first five feet around your home, moving your firewood pile 30 feet away from you house from April through October, and contacting your local fire department to start a conversation about being more fire-adapted. Finally, every year the New Mexico Association of Counties, with support from the Bureau of Land Management, hosts the New Mexico Wildland-Urban Interface Summit. This year it is in Albuquerque, starting March 30, with a free public day on Saturday, April 1. Register at www.regonline.com/2017WUISummit
Eytan Krasilovsky is the southwest director of the Forest Stewards Guild. He has been with the Guild since 2005 and leads its Forest Stewards Youth Corps, prescribed fire, and fire-adapted communities programs. Based in Santa Fe for over 30 years, the Guild has worked to support forest-based communities and improve the conditions of New Mexico’s forests. www.forestguild.org
Western Wildfire Season Worsening
A recent study by researchers with the University of Idaho and Columbia University adds weight to the assertion that wildfire seasons in the U.S. West have been getting longer and more destructive because of human activities such as fire suppression, settlement and the burning of fossil fuels. It says that anthropogenic climate change—human-caused global warming—added 16,000 square miles of burned forests from 1984 to 2015. That represents half of the burned forests during that timespan. The hottest year, 2015, also broke records for area burned by wildfire in the United States. More than half of the western states experienced their largest wildfire on record since 2000.
The report, which also took natural climate variations into account, says that 55 percent of the “fuel aridity”—forests drying out due to longer and hotter dry spells—is a result of warming and is likely to continue for decades. Spring and summer temperatures have warmed 2 to 2.5 degrees since 1950. There has been a 75 percent rise in increased aridity in forested lands since 2000. The study—the first to attempt to quantify how much human-caused climate change has impacted wildfires in Western forests, a question that has profound scientific, management and policy implications—was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.