A fire deficit

 

Cally Carswell’s piece on life in the Southwest during aridification hit home with me, living as I do on the edge of the national forest near Santa Fe. The town sits at the base of two large national forest watersheds, both of which are heavily forested and choked with thickets of decadent trees born of past overgrazing and a century of misguided fire suppression. These watersheds are ticking time bombs that will host high-severity fires any year now, and Santa Fe will face post-fire flooding that could cause millions of dollars in damage and depress the all-important tourism industry.

This is a familiar story in many towns around the West, but Santa Fe has a twist, given its urban population. Here, the U.S. Forest Service has been thinning and doing management burns in the Santa Fe River watershed but still has thousands of acres untreated directly adjacent to the city. Funding shortfalls and vocal members of the public who strongly object to any smoke from prescribed fires have hamstrung efforts to prepare for the inevitable wildfires (and their uncontrollable smoke).

As a wildland firefighter, I know what’s coming for Santa Fe. Thinning and prescribed burning should have been ongoing for decades to inoculate our forests against high-severity fire. Now, with shorter burning windows given drought, it may be too late. This fire deficit is a problem throughout the West, but with the Trump administration cutting funding for fuel treatments and fire science, the monster fires will continue and only get worse.

Tom Ribe
Santa Fe, New Mexico

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