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SANTA FE — If we don’t improve our firefighting, the Rockies will burn down. Those were the words of retired Los Alamos scientist Chick Keller when interviewed by Capitol Reports.
Keller has a point. We are not utilizing all the resources our nation has to fight wildfires. Almost every year fires in Western states are setting records for most land burned and that will continue until we get smarter.
Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) criticized the Forest Service for its handling of the Ruidoso fire that burned over 200 homes. There appeared to be opportunities to stop the fire in its early stages if the right actions had been taken at the right time.
Pearce’s comments came at the height of the fire. Gov. Susana Martinez commended the bravery of the firefighters and said the time for critiques would come later. And several days later she pled on national TV for 21st century methods of firefighting.
Keller has some suggestions. He says the Air Force can solve many of the problems. It can deploy bigger planes that can fly at night to help map strategy for ground crews to follow early the next morning while the fires still are laid down.
Drones also could play a part. The Air Force would not need anything new, according to Keller. Everything needed could come right off the shelf.
The problem is that fighting forest fires is not part of the Air Force’s mission. That probably takes an act of Congress —and funding or redeployment. Pearce would be the logical person to get that started.
Firefighting methods have changed over the years. When I was a high schooler in Silver City in the ‘50s, we didn’t have tankers to drop slurry. We had smoke jumpers to drop on fires. These were usually athletic college guys from throughout the Rockies. During their free time, they stole our girlfriends from us. We needed to replace them with those slurry bombers back then but the planes were busy in Korea.
Gov. Martinez also talks about the mismanagement of forests. She is referring to the floor of forests being littered with shrubs, dead trees and several inches of pine needles. She would like to see all that cleaned up and the trees thinned out.
Martinez commends the Mescalero Apaches to the west of Ruidoso who get to manage their own forest. It is clean and much less susceptible to fires. According to Keller, it is extremely fortunate for Ruidoso because if a fire ever gets started west of Ruidoso or any other populated area, the result would be catastrophic because the prevailing winds would blow it into town.
What Gov. Martinez refers to as mismanagement actually is management by a different philosophy. There is a strong lobby for leaving forests in their natural state because that is healthier for all the little critters that live on the forest floor.
Something bad evidently happens when the place is cleaned up. Arizona appears to be resisting that lobby because forests near previously burned areas now look pristine.
The Forest Service probably shouldn’t be blamed for mismanagement. It is doing everything it is allowed to do. It just needs more tools and a different management philosophy.
The fireworks season is now upon us. Gov. Martinez is most concerned. Last summer, there was a cry from many quarters for gubernatorial power to ban fireworks. She pursued that quest in the redistricting session and was told there was time to wait until the regular session in January.
She had the ban introduced in January and ran into the fireworks lobby, which convinced lawmakers that the ban would cost jobs and put them out of business.
Martinez will try again next January but the result is likely to be the same. Seven fires were started by fireworks in state forests last year. Another seven were started in Albuquerque. And no telling how many more were started in other communities.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.