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A Warmer World

When prescribed burns spiral into devastating wildfires, who pays the price?

Savannah Maher Oct 21, 2022
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A scorched structure and vehicle stand on a property mostly destroyed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on June 2 near Las Vegas, New Mexico. Mario Tama/Getty Images
A Warmer World

When prescribed burns spiral into devastating wildfires, who pays the price?

Savannah Maher Oct 21, 2022
Heard on:
A scorched structure and vehicle stand on a property mostly destroyed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on June 2 near Las Vegas, New Mexico. Mario Tama/Getty Images
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New Mexico’s Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire destroyed Louie Trujillo’s family cabin in the Sangre De Cristo mountains. Then, it started moving east. 

“The fire was on this mountain ridge that you can see from this window. It was just about to creep into the city,” Trujillo said, speaking from city hall in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He’s the mayor and a social worker at a local psychiatric hospital. 

“The hardest day was around May 2, when parts of the town had to start evacuating. Lots of people left town that day in fear,” Trujillo said, adding that he is angry that this crisis was preventable. 

The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history, which burned from April through June of this year, was first lit intentionally by the U.S. Forest Service. It began as two separate prescribed burns that merged and got out of control. (Prescribed burns are a common practice meant to thin excess forest fuels.) The U.S. Forest service says that these burns are an important tool for managing forests, and that 99.84% go according to plan. But that’s not much comfort in northern New Mexico, where parts of the Pecos Wilderness are permanently altered by the blaze. 

The fire damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and ranches deeper in the mountains, as well as a few structures on the outskirts of Las Vegas. And though it never reached the inner city, it still led to a water crisis in the area. 

A few miles northwest of Las Vegas, the Gallinas River rushes over a diversion channel. Damian Maestas with the public works department explained that the water is pumped from here to a treatment facility, then to the reservoirs that supply the city’s drinking water. But the Gallinas runs right through the burn scar left by the fire. 

“You can see here we got this netting here to catch the debris,” Maestas said. 

It held back charred branches and vegetation, but the river was still cloudy with ash. 

“Our water treatment plant is only able to treat near-perfect water,” he said. “It was never designed for these kinds of contaminants that are in the water because of the burning.”

For months after the fire was contained, Las Vegas residents and businesses were asked to dramatically curb their water use. The city is currently using a backup water source, but Trujillo said it needs an entirely new water treatment system. 

“[The fire] had ripple effects on our economy. How do we replace $200 million worth of infrastructure?” he said. “To me, the insult is that it was man-caused.” 

The Forest Service said its main mistake was not updating burn models to account for drought conditions in the area. After a review, it has recommended some new, stricter rules for the future use of prescribed burns. 

“Even the scientists that study forest ecology and fire science are saying this is urgent. It’s urgent because we’re going to lose communities,” said Michael Wara, a lawyer and the director of Stanford’s Climate and Energy Policy Program. 

The climate crisis makes prescribed burning trickier to get right, but also more necessary, said Wara. Without it, wildfires are expected to get larger and more destructive. And there’s another paradox here. 

“If there’s a prescribed fire and it goes wrong, someone’s in trouble,” Wara said. In this case, it’s the federal government, which is on the hook for billions in recovery costs. 

“But no one in the Forest Service gets in trouble when there’s a wildfire that destroys communities and destroys a landscape, and the fire really occurs because of the lack of management over decades,” Wara said.

A damaged sign reads 'Keep Your Forests Green' near trees scorched by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on June 2, 2022 near Las Vegas,
A damaged sign near trees scorched by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on June 2, 2022 near Las Vegas, New Mexico. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

So there’s a penalty for preventative action that — in rare cases — can go awry, but no penalty for a failure to act. 

Bill Tripp, natural resources director for the Karuk Tribe in California, said we’ve been “stuck in a negative feedback loop” for decades since the Forest Service began aggressively suppressing forest fires in the early 20th century. 

“Just about every conversation you have [with the Forest Service] comes back to liability,” he said. “That paradigm needs to shift in a major way, because if you’re looking at everything from the perspective of what you may, on an outside chance, be liable for, you’re not going to do things that put you at a perceived risk.” 

Under that incentive structure, Tripp said the federal government may make choices that protect its bottom line rather than the health of the forest. 

Tripp and Wara agree that more federal resources are needed for prescribed burns, not fewer. But that’s a hard sell in northern New Mexico.

Mayor Louie Trujillo said he expects it will take a decade for Las Vegas’ water supply to recover. The rural mountain communities that burned will never be the same, he said.

“That’s not right. It’s just not right to say, ‘Well, you know, we’re sorry this is the one point percent whatever that got out of [control],’” he said. “I don’t care about the ones that have been controlled. I care about the one that got out of control.” 

After what happened here, Trujillo added that it’s hard for him to see any place for prescribed fire in forest management.

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