A ban on fires set by government agencies during spring months to manage New Mexico’s forests was blocked by lawmakers, as they supported legislation to provide relief funds to those impacted by perilous wildfires last year.
Senate Bill 21, sponsored by Sen. Ron Griggs (R-34) who represents parts of Eddy, Otero and Doña Ana counties, would have prohibited prescribed burns between March and May.
It was tabled on a 4-3 vote by the Senate Conservation Committee, meaning no action was taken and the bill would not be brought up again with a separate motion and vote.
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Prescribed burning was believed the origin of the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire, which started in April 2022 and burned 340,980 acres in northern New Mexico – the largest such fire in New Mexico’s history.
The state’s second biggest wildfire ever, the Black Fire, burned another 325,156 acres starting in May 2022, and the McBride Fire in the Ruidoso area destroyed 200 homes in April and killed two people.
Griggs said it was clear spring was a dangerous time for fires, as dry winters give way to hotter, windier conditions with little rain ahead of the summer monsoon.
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“Fire and catastrophic fire have become an all-too common of an occurrence in New Mexico,” Griggs said before the committee. “Citizens have lost their lives, and millions of dollars of property both public and private have been reduced to ashes.
“Too many of these fires started because a prescribed burn got out of control.”
Mary Kay Root, a resident of Gallinas Canyon and volunteer firefighter with the La Placita Fire Department testified before the committee in support of the bill, after she lost her home to the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire.
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She blamed the U.S. Forest Service for starting the fire without consulting the local community as to conditions that could become uncontrollable, despite the fire department notifying residents that day not to set fires.
“I lost my home, completely to ashes. We knew it was a red flag day,” Kay Root said, choking back tears before lawmakers. “We knew they shouldn’t be starting a fire. They don’t consult with the local fire department.
“I hope this kind of thing can be curtailed in the future.”
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Committee Chair Sen. Elizabeth Stefanics (D-39) said there were “major” fires last year in three of the six counties her district represents, and that the legislature was concerned about physical threats and property losses the fires posed to New Mexicans.
“We are concerned about your loss and everybody else’s loss from all the fires,” Stefanics said to Root.
But opponents of the bill were concerned a blanket ban on all prescribed burns during spring months would pose difficulties for industries that use fire to manage land.
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Bronson Corn, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association said members of the association needed the ability to set fires to remove brush and other debris from land all year.
“There’s a lot of brush, a lot of certain types of grasses that have to be burned or livestock or wildlife can’t use it,” he said. “It’s a tool I want to make sure that we can continue to use.”
He said burns are needed during spring months to clear brush and other vegetation, without burning new growth which he said must prosper for livestock consumption.
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“There’s a lot of the county that we have to be able to burn for the economical and environmental feasibility of it, but it has to be done between February and April. If you burn it after April, now you’re destroying new growth,” he said.
Lawmakers support state-funded wildfire relief
A bill allowing the State to loan relief funds to communities impacted by the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire and appropriating $100 million to do so passed unanimously before the committee.
Sponsor Sen. Pete Campos (D-8) said if the bill passed, New Mexico would work with the federal government to target areas in need of funding, and devise projects to rebuild communities devastated by the fire and prepare for ongoing impacts.
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The bill included an emergency clause and would take effect immediately when signed into law as Campos argued relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were “slow” to come to New Mexicans in need.
“Since April 6 (the start of the fire) we’ve continued to go ahead and work with all sorts of issues when it comes to taking care of the health and welfare of our constituents in the area,” Campos said.
“What we want to do with this is get these resources to the entities so that they’re able to take care of the roads, the other infrastructure that has been devastated and damaged, and along with that begin as soon as possible to prepare to address the issues that are going to be created by the runoff.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.