Large, high–severity wildfires are now a common occurrence in northern New Mexico. These fires burn through forests that are not adapted to high-severity fire and can devastate ecosystems and human communities. For example, the Las Conchas Fire of 2011 burned across 156,593 acres, caused severe flooding and converted ponderosa pine forests to shrub fields, perhaps forever. Although lightning causes many wildfires in the Southwest, human ignitions are preventable. Raising education and awareness could be the key to reducing the number of large wildfires.
People start wildfires with their vehicles, cigarette butts, campfires, fireworks, debris burning, powerlines, arson and other activities. A new study from the Forest Stewards Guild in collaboration with the Forest Trust (www.theforesttrust.org), Increasing Wildfire Awareness and Reducing Human-Caused Ignitions in Northern New Mexico, was designed to help support wildfire prevention by better understanding how people start wildfires, common locations of human-caused wildfires, existing public awareness campaigns and current investments in public awareness of wildfire.
Key Findings from the Report
• Abandoned campfires account for 41 percent of human-caused wildfires since 2001. Campfire bans have limited effectiveness because campfires are particularly important to people recreating in the forest.
• Electric power lines are a significant cause of wildfires. In New Mexico, three major wildfires in the last decade were all caused by electric lines, including the Las Conchas Fire, which cost more than $1 billion.
• More knowledge about the spatial patterns of human ignitions presents the opportunity for targeted outreach and education, which is a cost-effective way to reduce wildfire impacts. In New Mexico, 80 percent of wildfires started by campfires are within a quarter–mile of a road. Hotspot modeling to identify areas of high arson potential also can help law enforcement reduce wildfire threats.
• Currently, federal agency budgets for prevention programs do not reflect their importance. The National Wildfire Prevention Program has an annual budget of only $95,000 and one full-time staff person to help coordinate national awareness efforts. Research has shown that the savings from the reduction in wildfire damages can be as much as 35 times greater than the cost of prevention education.
• Public awareness campaigns, such as Smokey Bear and the more recent One Less Spark, seek to change behaviors, but there is little information about their effectiveness. The most recent investigation into the effectiveness of wildfire prevention signs was more than 40 years ago.
To view the full report, visit wwwforeststewardsguild.org/publications.