Forest Service officials on ‘high alert’ with ‘self-imposed scrutiny’ as prescribed burns resume

[anvplayer video=”5159823″ station=”998122″]

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ahead of a prescribed burn, U.S. Forest Service officials announced they are planning for next week in the Sandia Mountains, KOB 4 asked them about any changes to those operations since last year’s destructive wildfire season.

Thousands of people in New Mexico are still recovering from the largest wildfire in state history, which started as a result of two prescribed burns led by federal workers that got out of control. The Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire brought a disaster last summer, destroying nearly 400 homes and charring ground across five counties.

After New Mexico residents and the state’s congressional delegation raised concerns, KOB 4 spoke with U.S. Forest Service official Matt Rau, Fire Staff Officer for the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands.

Rau said the agency reviewed all their plans, but their criteria for giving the go-ahead to start these fires hasn’t changed.

He said there have been changes, including that workers are aware of the pressure they are under.

Reporter: “Is there a big change from one year ago to now with the decision of whether to carry out a prescribed burn?”

Rau: “I will say that all of the criteria that we use that I mentioned, all that criteria is still the same – all those same political and social factors, the weather factors, the field conditions, the moisture cycles – all that is still the same, the required resources needed. Those things really haven’t changed at all. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little more self-imposed scrutiny. We all live in these communities. These are the professions that we have taken, and we understand the risks.”

After the review following last year’s wildfire season, Forestry officials said there were changes in written guidelines to the chain of authorization, how they use resources and other parts of the prescribed burn process, but Rau said those aspects align with what fire officials were already doing in practice.

He said the biggest difference between a year ago and today is the awareness of last year’s disaster.

Reporter: “Since last fire season, is there perhaps even more care being taken with some of the decision making?”

Rau: “I would say we are all on high alert based on what’s happened.”

Some state lawmakers in New Mexico believe the state should back off on prescribed burns in the springtime, but the legislature recently swatted down a proposal on the matter.

Fire officials stress how important these intentional burns are for the state.

“It’s just critical. I just can’t stress this enough. These ecosystems are all dependent on fire to stay healthy,” Rau said. “We have forest health that’s in decline. It’s the only way we’re going to restore the health to our forest systems.”

“We all want the same thing. We want healthy forests,” he said.