How to deal with wildfire? Policy slow to evolve

Wildfires Shifting Gears
These scars are from one of three fires to hit central New Mexico over seven months.Susan Montoya Bryan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nearly 30 years ago, a piece of property along a twisting dirt road in the heart of the Manzano Mountains caught Paul Davis' eye.

With a stream on one side and an expansive hill covered with towering pines on another, the spot seemed like the perfect place to build his family's home.

"This was a natural meadow so the insurance company actually thought it was well protected when they came out. I didn't clear any trees around the backside at all or that side," Davis said, pointing to an area of the now-blackened landscape where his home once stood.

The house was one of six destroyed by a lightning-sparked wildfire in June, the third to break out in the central New Mexico mountains in seven months. Each time, hundreds of residents were forced from their homes.

Environmentalists point to the Manzanos as an example of why the nation needs to change its thinking about wildfire preparation and the circumstances under which the federal government pays to put out the flames.

Bryan Bird, wildplaces program director for WildEarth Guardians, contends that land management agencies are throwing a lot of money at ineffective thinning projects and efforts to suppress most fires on forest land.

"I think we need to completely reassess that approach to fire-prone forests, especially with climate change and the unpredictability and uncertainty about the future of forests and how fire is going to behave," he said during a recent tour of the burned area.

No question of tougher fire seasons
Experts agree that fire seasons across the nation are lasting longer, blazes are burning hotter, and federal, state and local firefighting budgets are getting tighter.

The three Manzano fires cost the Forest Service more than $9 million. Nationally, the agency has said spending on fires could reach $1.6 billion this year, about half its budget.

While federal land management agencies have long recognized the need to allow fire to burn in some areas, the problem is transferring that philosophy to decision-making on the ground, said Stephen Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University who teaches courses on wildfire history and management.

Paul Davis, left, surveys what is left of his home in the Manzano Mountains near Tajique, N.M., on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008, as neighbor Bud Latven walks across the slab. Davis' home was destroyed by the Big Spring Fire, one of three blazes that hit the area over a seven-month period. Susan Montoya Bryan / AP

Pyne said more than three decades have passed since the Forest Service and National Park Service began changing their policies to restore fire to the landscape and include it as a management tool.

"It's not a case of whether we burn or we suppress, that's not an issue any more. That's over," said Pyne, who began his career as a firefighter on the Grand Canyon's North Rim in the late 1960s and went on to do fire planning for the National Park Service before turning to writing and teaching.

He said land managers cannot apply a one-size-fits-all approach to fire management. "To use a medical analogy, there are number of treatments — a little surgery, drugs, exercise, a mixtures of things," Pyne said.

Real change next year?
The Oregon-based nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology said the federal government will be taking a step in the right direction next year as it begins to implement the "Appropriate Management Response" policy for all federal lands. The policy calls for fire officials to consider multiple objectives and strategies and when managing a fire — for example, suppressing the flames on one side while letting them burn on the other.

"The new policy change recognizes that it is simply not humanly possible to attack all wildfires in all places at all times," said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of FUSEE. "We must learn to work with and use the benefits of fire where we can, suppress it where we must, but become far more strategic and selective in the places and methods we choose to commit firefighters to aggressive suppression."

'Spending more, managing less'
Shifting gears can't happen soon enough, according to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. He said wildfires have charred some 58 million acres — or 90,000 square miles — across the nation in the past seven years.

"We are spending more, managing less, burning more and as a result, having to cut funds to other important resource programs such as recreation, fisheries and wildlife to battle these wildfires," Domenici said.

In the Manzanos and elsewhere, decades of mismanagement have resulted in overgrown forests that make reintroducing fire a difficult task, said Arlene Perea, a fire information officer with the Mountainair Ranger District.

The district has used prescribed fire and mechanical thinning, but Perea said wildfires can't be allowed to burn to clean out the forest because of the homes scattered throughout the area.

The condition of the Manzanos and inclement weather at the time of the three fires kept forest officials from doing much more than watch the flames eat up some 26,000 acres — or 40 square miles — and more than five dozen homes, Bird said.

He said some of the charred areas had been treated previously to reduce the fire risk, but the flames still burned through.

"It's the same scenarios we had with people living in the Mississippi River flood plain," he said. "If people are going to live in there, how do we plan for that and prepare for that?"

Bird said local governments should adopt building codes and zoning rules to help mitigate some of the danger. However, he said, homeowners also need to take responsibility.

Davis said he would not have done anything differently to prepare for the fire. Some of his neighbors cleared a swath of land around their homes and they still burned, while others did nothing and escaped the flames, he said.

"If I build again here, if I build again in a deep forest, I won't clear a tree again either," he said. "Fire's a risk and it just happened to hit."