Fighting fire with fire: Protecting New Mexico water

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- In New Mexico, wildfire season, is no longer a season.

“This is a 365, 52 weeks that you’ve got to be on it,” Collin Haffey, forest and watershed health manager for the Nature Conservancy, said.

That presents problems, not just for forests and homes that might be in a fire’s path, but also for the water we drink every day. The Rio Grande Water Fund is focused on the impacts massive fires in our state have on our water sources.

“What’s happening a lot of times in these fires is they’re burning the headwaters or the source water of our watersheds,” Haffey said. “After these fires burn through we’re seeing a lot of debris flows and these post fire flooding. It’s really degrading our water quality.”

So what’s being done to protect the water millions of us drink and use every day? Call it fighting fire with fire. The Rio Grande Water Fund wants to burn 30,000 acres a year, because if they can thin out forests and make them healthier fires in that area are much less likely to be catastrophic.

“Our most recent example outside of Santa Fe is the Medio fire that burned in 2020,” Haffey said. “That fire burned into a treated area and it was immediately able to be caught by fire managers and it didn’t’ burn into the bigger area of the ski basin and municipal watershed.”

Back to fire season being year round, that’s making their race to rejuvenate New Mexico forests through controlled burning a bit more difficult. And it’s making fighting those yearly fires tough too.

“We need a workforce that can support a fire year instead of a fire season,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy is working with the Forest Service and through programs like the All Hands, All Lands burn team to try and pick up the pace.