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With new rules, and community engagement, Forest Service brings back prescribed burns

Carson National Forest District Ranger Angela Krall
Alice Fordham
Carson National Forest District Ranger Angela Krall

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service accidentally started three wildfires in New Mexico, while conducting planned burns designed to reduce flammable vegetation.

After two of those fires combined to become the largest wildfire in the state's recorded history, the agency put a nationwide pause on prescribed fire.

In September, the agency announced it would begin burning again, with a new set of rules.

In the Carson National Forest, rangers recently conducted their first prescribed burn since the pause, near Tres Piedras in Taos County.

District Ranger Angie Krall sat down with KUNM's Alice Fordham and began the conversation with what's new about the way they're burning now.

ANGIE KRALL: Quite a lot of things. Tactically, not so much, more in the preparation. We had to build new burn plans that outlined exactly how we were going to basically beef up our monitoring, we basically added in quite a bit more contingency resources, those people who are kind of on standby in case anything goes sideways. We had probably four times the personnel usually needed on something like that. I have to be on site for most of that time, especially during ignitions. We did a lot more community outreach.

We are so deeply humbled by the events of last year and how quickly things are changing climatically for us, you know, we've we feel like we're really just trying to keep up with the changes.

KUNM: Tell me a little bit more about that community involvement.

KRALL: For the prescribed burn that occurred south of Tres Piedras, we had two community meetings. And we had a really great cross section of folks from that area. It's very rural, but had real interest, of course, especially given the events of last year. And so we had some hard conversations. We really dug into exactly the questions you asked me: what's different? What are you guys doing different? And a lot of that is more personnel, more monitoring, new techniques, new infrared techniques, to really gauge that heat signature, flights to gain that heat signature. But really, it's lots of people with eyes on the ground, and watching and watching the weather.

KUNM Do you hope to help the community change or evolve their understanding of the role of fire on the land and in national forests?

KRALL: You know, I think we've always struggled with getting that message across that fire is a natural part of this ecosystem. This land is begging to burn, for it to be viable, for us to have the diversity of species that really need to be out there.

Of course, Smokey Bear has had a long history of, 'we've got to suppress every fire'. For much of our agency's history, from 'put every fire out before 10am', which started in 1910, after the Great 1910 fires, which were devastating.

Looking back now we realize that was folly, because we have to allow fire in to perform its natural role.

So now we're in a position of like, 'Oh, my goodness' and I know this is up for debate, which is interesting these days, that we really do have too many trees on the landscape. They're fighting for all the same resources, the light, the air, the water, and, and therefore, many of our stands are just very sickly.

And with our continued drought, this mega drought that we're in, when we do have a big fire, a catastrophic fire come, then you have this really devastating event.

So because I think we broke the system, it's now really our responsibility to fix it by allowing fire in on our terms at low intensity, low severity.

How have you seen attitudes to fire change during your time with the Forest Service?

KRALL: I've been with this agency almost 30 years, starting as a seasonal. So I have seen some pretty dramatic changes, just weather wise, climate wise, and just the way we have kind of retooled our thinking from suppression to vegetation management, fuels management.

And I know a lot of people don't like those terms. But if I could break it down into just talking about kind of what the earth is crying out for, is less of a monoculture of trees, more age, class diversity, small trees, medium age trees, and then the elders or old growth, you know, we need more of that.

And in our current strategic plan, up there at the very top is being a provider of clean and abundant water to our downstream users, which include Albuquerque and Santa Fe. When we burn here, or allow natural ignition to happen, we are by doing that providing resiliency into that forest so that we don't get the catastrophic fire that you've seen elsewhere. And so that we are not impacting that water source downstream.

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.