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Wildfire season and the evolution of forest management in New Mexico

Firefighters wade through debris left by the Blue 2 Fire in Southern New Mexico.
Mike McMillan
/
U.S. Forest Service
Firefighters wade through debris left by the Blue 2 Fire in Southern New Mexico.

As summers become drier and hotter for New Mexico, the state’s National Forests become more vulnerable. In recent weeks, crews have been battling Blue 2 Fire, which was caused by a lightning strike in the White Mountain Wilderness. Red flag conditions transformed what was a small blaze into a large fire that posed a threat to communities in the area.

Wildfire season and the evolution of forest management in New Mexico

Galen Farrington lives in Alto, New Mexico, one of the areas placed on high alert as the Blue 2 fire swept through the mountain. His community sits at the edge of an old burn scar, and he’s been ordered to evacuate multiple times over the years due to the presence of wildfires. Farrington expressed frustration with authorities for letting the Blue 2 fire grow to the point of threatening homes.

“I just so happened to be at the county commissioner meeting when the Hotshots were presenting their case to allow the fire to burn. And I got to see video of the half-acre fire. And I suggested to the Hotshots, why don’t you just simply drop a bucket of water on this thing? It looks like 2 guys with a fire hose could put this out. And he explained that it’s not quite as simple as that when it comes to wilderness areas.”

Over a decade ago, The Little Bear Fire burned tens of thousands of acres in this exact area, as well as hundreds of properties. And the overarching question for people that live here is, how was the Blue 2 Fire allowed to get out of control, and what can be done in the future to prevent fires like the Blue 2 Fire from putting people at risk?

According to Forest Service Officials, the lightning strike that caused the Blue 2 Fire was completely within the designated White Mountain Wilderness, and in terrain too difficult to be reached by fire crews, which is what led to it growing to the level that it has. But Farrington wasn’t satisfied with that explanation.

“All of us feel that these people are experts. We have entrusted within them the ability to act in our best interest as a community. And after I heard the explanation as to why we don’t need to put out this fire, I thought to myself, this is a confluence of conditions that’s going to recreate the Little Bear Fire,” he said.

Galen Farrington sits at the edge of a burn scar left by the 2012 Little Bear Fire, which burned over 44,000 acres.
Jonny Coker
/
KRWG
Galen Farrington sits at the edge of a burn scar left by the 2012 Little Bear Fire, which burned over 44,000 acres.

New Mexico has yet to reach the peak of the wildfire season, yet the state has already experienced multiple non-prescribed wildfires that have burned thousands of acres. It’s a stark reminder of the challenges faced by both firefighters and local communities as they navigate the complexities of forestry management.

Down the street from Alto, authorities moved into the Ruidoso High School to be used as a command post for the Blue 2 Fire. Loretta Benavidez, Public Information Officer for the Forest Service, said she understands frustration coming from distressed residents, but said she has confidence in her team to make the right decisions when faced with difficult circumstances.

“All of these experts that come together to form this team have extensive knowledge about what firefighting is about. They have grown up from boots on the ground to these very high positions to understand the science of fire, to understand how it moves, [and] where. And they’re also engaged in communities, in providing public education when they can. Sometimes though, communities are not necessarily receptive unless there’s a threat,” Benavidez said. “We do move forward with a set of emotions that says we don’t want this to happen. We don’t want [incidents] to occur that’s going to result in a serious injury, fatality, [or] damage to residents. We never want that to happen.”

Loretta Benavidez outside of the Blue 2 Fire command post.
Jonny Coker
/
KRWG
Loretta Benavidez outside of the Blue 2 Fire command post.

According to Douglas Cram, a forestry and fire ecology expert at New Mexico State University, putting out every fire as soon as it appears is not only unrealistic, but it’s also not advisable.

“We’re not going back to the days of suppressing every fire as fast as humanly possible. In some cases, they can burn and have an ecological benefit. Like in this case, it’s burning in the fire footprint,” he said. “These systems are historically adapted to fire, and you can’t keep fire out of them. We’d like to change the fuel structure, so we have stands that are more resilient to fire behavior. So the idea of putting a fire out immediately or letting it burn, sometimes you can dictate that, other times you can’t.”

And while climate change continues to drive instances of fire weather, Cram explained that the solution to severe blazes is to mitigate damage with the right type of management, including thinning and prescribed burns.

“I think it’s a sign of the times. This idea that this fire is burning in an old footprint, we are going to see more and more of those across the state. We have some large footprints from high severity fires. And fire promotes fire,” he said. “There’s other natural disasters that you can’t do anything about. Whereas with fire, between changing fuel loads and changing mindsets and fuel loads on your own property, it can actually work pretty well.”

As the state braces for the height of wildfire season, communities like Alto grapple with the evolution of modern wildfire management, highlighting the tension between immediate suppression and long-term ecological benefits.

Jonny Coker is a Multimedia Journalist for KRWG Public Media. He has lived in Southern New Mexico for most of his life, growing up in the small Village of Cloudcroft, and earning a degree in Journalism and Media Studies at New Mexico State University.