October 22, 2021

2011 Fire Season: It’s going to take us all

Posted on 13. Jul, 2011 by Stephan Helgesen in Energy/Environment

Uncharacteristic wildfires can be devastating to natural resources and our communities.  This year’s fire season is showing us that first hand.  Too many trees and unhealthy forest conditions, a dry winter and spring, above average temperatures, low humidity, and near constant wind events created extremely dry vegetation, vegetation that was ready to burn.  Every spring people ask us (the Forest Service) if we are ready for fire season. Some might say we can only know the answer after the season is over.  But I believe we can be ready for wildfires, in fact, we must be ready, knowing events won’t always turn out exactly how we would like.  If you’ve lived in the Southwest for any length of time, it’s easy to realize all of the conditions favored a potentially long and difficult fire season.  And we got it…but we, in the wildland fire business, were ready.  Here are the reasons why I think that was the case.

We take our charge to protect life, property, and the natural resources that our communities depend on very seriously. That means taking actions to prevent fires from starting in the first place and being prepared when they do start.  We took actions to help prevent fire starts and to protect both human life and the forests that we all treasure.  We restricted camp fires and other activities when the risks for fire increased, and when conditions became too extreme on some forests, those forests are now closed to public use.  The hot, dry, and windy conditions told us we needed to be prepared earlier than normal for fire season.  We brought in firefighters and equipment three to four weeks early and made sure helicopters and air tankers were in close proximity.

But restrictions, closures, and securing resources early are not cure alls.  We need each of you to take personal responsibility to stop fires from starting.  Humans and nature can be unpredictable and the fires that result can be destructive given the right circumstances.  It’s important to recognize however, what our efforts and firefighters achieve in the face of adversity, and that there are successes to be thankful for along the way.

We are blessed with committed individuals both inside and outside the Forest Service, including highly trained people who risk their lives every day to minimize the impact of wildfires.  With nearly 200,000 acres burned this spring on national forests in New Mexico (and more each day); hundreds of threatened homes and businesses have been saved.   We would rather never lose homes to wildfire, but sometimes the conditions make it impossible to save every one, and our hearts go out to those who have suffered losses.  Many communities including Mayhill, Ruidoso, and Queen have been threatened by the various fires in New Mexico.

Despite extreme fire behavior, we were able to save the majority of homes, losing three in the Mayhill Fire, five in the White Fire and one in the Last Chance Fire.  Heroic efforts of local, state, and federal firefighters were aided in these successes by the previous removal of trees to thin forests in and around communities.  Many individual homeowners worked hard to “firewise” their homes and we thank each and every one of you.  Thinning done around the towns of Mayhill and Ruidoso, New Mexico can be credited with protecting those communities from the extreme fire behavior of the Mayhill and White fires.  Fire hit these areas with incredible force but the flames dropped down to something more manageable in the thinned areas.  Fewer trees in more natural patterns with appropriate spacing result in fires that burn primarily on the ground or with more moderate behavior, and at a slower pace.  This allows firefighters to safely attack the fire more directly, minimizing its impacts and allowing for protection of property and other resources.  Efforts to thin forests around communities paid off for the resources, the firefighters, and the communities.

Fire is a natural and important part of southwestern forest ecosystems, so we will never eliminate all impacts from fire.  But we can and are striving to minimize those undesirable impacts by restoring our forests to a more healthy condition; a condition that supports lower intensity fires that are easier to manage and benefit the forests.  I recognize the urgent need for restoration not only to reduce the risk of fires like the Mayhill and White Fires, but also to improve the resilience of our forests and ensure they are here for future generations.

We have accomplished some good things but they aren’t nearly enough.  We need innovative thinking, committed partners, and a vibrant wood products industry to achieve our goal and overcome financial and other challenges we face.  Federal resources alone will never be sufficient.  We need you to observe restrictions and closures and do your best to make your homes defensible (www.firewise.org).  Projects such as the Southwest Jemez Mountains Landscape Restoration project in northern New Mexico and the 16 Springs Stewardship project in the southern New Mexico are two examples of what we can do when we work together.  The Southwest Jemez project is a collaborative, landscape-scale initiative designed to restore fire-adapted ecosystems on 210,000 acres in northern New Mexico.

The area is a key source of water for the greater Albuquerque area and many smaller communities, and is also rich in archeological and other natural resources. Together, with a diverse group of stakeholders, the Santa Fe National Forest is working toward restoration of this landscape across National Forest, National Park Service, state, private, and tribal lands.  The 16 Springs Stewardship is a partnership between the Lincoln National Forest and the Mescalero Apache Tribe and is the first stewardship project conducted under the Tribal Forest Protection Act (TFPA). The goal of the project is to improve forest health, and reduce hazardous fuels and associated fire risk to tribal lands, the community of 16 Springs, the Village of Ruidoso (rated the most at risk community in New Mexico and number two on the list of most at risk communities in the nation), and National Forest System lands. The 16 Springs Stewardship project, currently underway, includes the 16 Springs (Otero County) and Perk/Grindstone (Ruidoso, Lincoln County) project areas on the Lincoln National Forest.

I ask for your support, your energy, and your ideas to help us meet this challenge.  We stand ready with your help… to both fight fires and to restore forest health to make fires a more manageable part of the future.

Corbin Newman was assigned to the position of Regional Forester for the Southwestern Region of the U.S. Forest Service in December 2007. Newman has held numerous positions at all levels of the Forest Service—in both the eastern and western parts of the country—during his 35-year career.



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