Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

In New Mexico you can mix the earth with straw, form it into bricks that dry in the sun and make yourself a casita to live in, or an horno oven to bake your bread in that will last for over a hundred years. The sunbaked adobe earth that stretches across the Land of Enchantment’s Southwestern high mountain desert indicates its glass of water isn’t even half full—habitually, it’s pretty empty. Water is precious here and is becoming more so every single minute. Predictions from the National Weather Service are that days and days of beautiful but cloudless blue skies are what’s on the water menu for months to come.

As New Mexicans celebrate Arbor Month in March by planting a tree in their yards for future climate action, the Prescribed Burning Act passed the New Mexican Senate with bipartisan support of a 37 to 1 vote. The bill focuses on managing the state’s forests for a changing climate and aims to prevent future catastrophic fires. The bill now goes to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham for her signature. Sponsors of the bill were elated with its passage.

“Passage of the Prescribed Burning Act is a big win for New Mexico and will provide an important tool to manage rangelands and forests and respond to a changing climate,” said Representative Matthew McQueen. “Healthy and resilient grasslands and watersheds will benefit New Mexicans for generations to come,” said Representative Gail Armstrong. “By taking action today, we can ensure stronger forests tomorrow.”

The bill also clarifies liability for private landowners who conduct prescribed burns, making insurance more available and affordable. States that have enacted similar legislation have seen an increase in prescribed burning. As the climate changes and fire season becomes longer and more intense, prescribed burns are used as a tool in forest management.

The New Mexico State Forestry Division is planning to strategically implement prescribed burns across the state forests this spring to reduce hazardous fuels before the onset of the 2021 wildland fire season. These burns have been shown to be an effective way to slow wildfires and change fire behavior.

Climate change is creating an “unprecedented” risk of severe drought in the Southwest. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, changing precipitation patterns in the state due to climate change are expected to result in “more intense droughts and a greater proportion of precipitation falling as rain rather than snow.” More than 1.4 million people in New Mexico, or 70 percent of the state’s population, are living in areas at elevated risk of wildfire.

The recent snowfall helped skiers hit the slopes, but it hasn’t made a dent in the state’s drought. Temperatures will be above average this spring and the raindrops hitting the parched ground will be less than what the state normally sees. Current snowpack is still only at about 30 percent of normal, and while the recent snowstorms might slow down the start of the dry season, they are not enough to alleviate the severe drought situation being faced around New Mexico. The predicted 1 to 3 inches of snowpack melting daily sets the stage for rivers running dry, out-of-control forest fires, crops dying from lack of water and a water debt running deeper into arrears.

The Gila National Forest saw record-breaking visitors last year during the warmer months as families tried to escape to the wide outdoors for a safer environment away from the pandemic. This year an extensive reworking of trails program by Forest Rangers in the Gila National Forest is being financed with an award through the Great American Outdoors Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last year. That law guarantees $1.9 billion in annual permanent funding for the upkeep and improvement of the nation’s public lands. As the weather warms, it creates an increased likelihood of human-caused fires due to larger numbers of visitors in the forest. Add this to the extreme drought and there is a greater probability of more wildland fires.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, over 50 percent of New Mexico is currently in an exceptional drought. This means federal lands will begin to close for fire precautions; burn bans will increase, bears will start to encroach on developed areas; migratory birds change patterns, and there is no surface water is left for agriculture, meaning farmers need to use private wells.

The drought conditions of windy, dry and warmer weather dry out the grasses quicker, impacting permittees with grazing allotments as well as recreational sports and the timber industry. Cattle ranchers may have to move their cattle to different pastures, and sometimes off the forestland entirely. This causes a financial impact as they then have to feed and water their livestock. Fire restrictions and closures also affect recreational users and impact economics within the counties that are involved in timber cutting.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 58,250 wildfires burned 10.3 million acres across the U.S. in 2020, the largest number of acres within a year. Before the fire season really gets going, the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department recommend New Mexicans prepare and maintain their homes against the threat of falling embers and flames. They advocate taking care of the yard around a house as a good way to help make any dwelling safer when living in a wildland-urban interface.

There are several ways to help reduce the risk of ignition near your home. Experts say it is important to focus on the 5-foot area surrounding a house by cleaning up dead vegetation from last season that is trapped against the house, under the deck and against fences. Removing fire fuels, such as pine needles and anything else that might ignite when exposed to an ember or flame, could save your home should a forest fire break out. Following just a few of these steps can stop a small spark from burning our dry, brittle state.

The online drought monitor for New Mexico can be found at droughtmonitor.unl.edu.

Written by

Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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