Let us prepare now

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Las Conchas Fire: Handwriting on the wall

The Las Conchas Fire is mercifully coming to an end. Hopefully monsoon rains will finish it off.  
But its effects will be long-lasting, and its size (despite the valiant efforts of firefighters) is alarming.
After the Cerro Grande Fire, Los Alamos National Laboratory held a three-day conference on new concepts in fire suppression.
It was widely recognized that existing suppression technology was badly outdated. The conference included experts from most agencies involved with fire fighting and research.
Several very interesting ideas were forthcoming, but perhaps the most important one was a three-agency collaboration proposing to fight fires primarily from the air and at night when most fires are relatively dormant.
The needed technology was already in hand especially from NASA and the Air Force.
No one said it wouldn’t work, but they did comment that the government wouldn’t pay for it. Two years later, two of us presented this idea to then Rep. Tom Udall.  He was sympathetic but essentially not motivated to do anything.
Perhaps after this year with the two largest fires in New Mexico history and by far the largest one in Arizona plus the fact that nationwide burned acreage is twice the norm, we can get people’s attention.
The Las Conchas Fire was particularly alarming because, excepting for the first day, it was a relatively low wind event. Yet even then, current technology (despite dedication and much hard work) was not able to even slow the fire significantly.
The result is that Northern New Mexico has lost some of its best and most treasured forests and the Santa Clara Pueblo has been deprived of some of its most culturally important lands.
Finally the devastation to our National Parks has been severe.
As warming and drought increase, we face the specter of more frequent devastating fires and the inability of nature to recover lacking necessary moisture.
People in the southwest and indeed the entire Rocky Mountains are being faced with the possibility of losing all our wild-land forests.
The economic disaster is clear. Who wants to come to New Mexico to see charred parks and forests? Who wants to hire on at the lab to live in a firetrap? We are recognizing that in time we are almost certain to lose all of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, all of Bandelier, most of the Jemez Mountains and many other areas of New Mexico.
Think of your favorite fishing place, camping or hiking area, where you take visitors, and recognize that its days are numbered.
What to do? It might not be a bad start to look at the recommendations of that 11-year-old conference.
Fighting fire from the air is not easy, especially if massively done.  
It will probably require the peacetime U.S. Air Force.  
In fact it would be great training and experience in command and control but would not significantly increase the defense budget.
One thing is becoming abundantly clear, without the ability to control (put out if necessary) wildfires, we can only look forward to loss of the New Mexico we love.

Chick and Yvonne Keller   
Los Alamos