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Bill to ban prescribed burns in spring stalls for now

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire has caused extensive damage to forests in northern New Mexico
Alice Fordham
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire has caused extensive damage to forests in northern New Mexico

A bill that would have prevented prescribed burns during spring is not likely to move beyond the committee stage during this legislative session.

Despite the catastrophic impact of last year's Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire, which began as two planned burns by the US Forest Service, forest managers say the tool is still essential.

That fire burned hundreds of homes and devastated livelihoods. Senator Ron Griggs, a Republican of Alamogordo, told the Senate Conservation Committee that the costs were too high.

"Fire and catastrophic fire have become an all too common of an occurrence in New Mexico," he said. "Citizens have lost their lives and millions of dollars of property, both public and private, have been reduced to ashes."

Griggs sponsored Senate Bill 21, which would have prevented burns during March, April and May. He said based on 50 years experience, those are the windiest months in New Mexico.

The committee heard from Mary Kay Root, a volunteer firefighter and resident of the badly-burned Gallinas Canyon, who lost her house in the fire.

She said she knew it was too windy to burn on the day early last April when a prescribed fire at Las Dispensas in San Miguel County got out of control.

"Everyone was aware of that," she said. "That was no day to start a fire."

However, the committee also heard from numerous opponents including State Forester Laura McCarthy, who argued that because New Mexico is large and has different weather conditions in different areas, a flat ban on burning would be too restrictive.

And James Duran of the US Forest Service said that in the wake of the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire, there had been a lot of reflection within the agency and that in future there would be closer cooperation with local leaders and volunteer fire departments on when to burn.

The committee voted to table the motion, meaning it is unlikely to be considered again during this legislative session.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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