Interpreting the New Mexico Fires: I. Who Determines What is Reaction vs. Overreaction?

As always, you are welcome to add other stories and what you think about them.

This NPR story intrigued me. First the title: New Mexico wildfire sparks backlash against controlled burns. That’s bad for the West.

I think it’s supposed to be a news story not an op-ed. Somewhere along the line I guess it became OK for reporters to make normative claims. The story is fairly long and has a variety of perspectives.

When do we think it’s safe to do dangerous things and why? Nuclear power plants, air travel, pipelines and so on.
How are they regulated? Why do we mostly trust the regulators?

When do we have compassion for the people displaced by accidents? And when do we think that they and their elected representatives might be overreacting? Does it vary by what people caused the accident?

I’d argue that we can hold those ideas at the same time.
1. More prescribed fire would be good
2. Bad things sometimes happen when they get out of control, as bad as “real” wildfire (which we are trying to avoid).
3. The people who have suffered have a right to their emotions (is this one policy area where they are disregarded?) even if the suffering occurs infrequently
4. Ultimately it’s on the people who want prescribed fire to develop social license. Communication, transparency, openness, accountability about what went wrong and what they are going to do to change.

Also I’d argue that if you’re going to write about people impacted by disasters, and there is a substantial body of literature on the topic by social scientists, you might want to interview one.

Forest ecologists and other experts now worry it may prompt a backlash against prescribed burns in New Mexico and across the West, throwing a monkey wrench into this vital forest management tool that experts say needs to be massively scaled-up to help reduce the number, size and intensity of catastrophic fires across the region.

Record-breaking wildfires in California and other states underscore the need to expand intentional burn programs

“There’s already a tremendous amount of backlash,” says James Biggs, who teaches wildfire ecology and fire behavior at New Mexico Highlands University whose campus in Las Vegas, N.M., is near the southern edge of the wildfire.

Biggs says ironically the scale and impact of this blaze underscores precisely why the Western U.S. needs to do more intentional burning after a century-plus policy of suppressing nearly every forest fire, which has resulted in the build up of dangerous and untenable amounts of fuel across forests.

Now I am not a fire scientist, but I think the “scale and impact of this blaze” underscores that prescribed fire/pile burning is dangerous and folks need to be careful to create social license. Trust is about openness, transparency and accountability (and other things).

The New Mexico blaze is deeply concerning, says Rebecca Miller, a scholar with the University of Southern California’s The West on Fire Project. “Because we know that we need to be treating the massive amounts of vegetation that we’ve got across the Western United States, which is a direct result of historic wildfire suppression policies of the 20th century.”

“When we see a prescribed burn, as in New Mexico, that escapes and becomes a massive wildfire that threatens communities, that prompts concerns about the safety of these prescribed burns of this very, very important tool,” Miller at USC says adding, “the vast, vast, vast majority of prescribed burns are conducted safely, do not escape, and you’ll never hear about them.”

Hard data on just how often intentional fires escape their boundaries is hard to come by. But Miller says estimates from the early 2000s show that fewer than 1% of prescribed burns might escape to become a major wildfire. “So we’re talking a really, really small percentage.”

So far, the New Mexico fire has burned more than 300,000 acres, torched hundreds of structures and displaced thousands. The fire is just over 30% contained. The blaze is closing in on 500 square miles burned.

It’s always interesting, as we’ve observed before, when people from elsewhere dismiss people’s concerns with “it doesn’t happen that often.” This is a case where something right goes wrong. Certainly nuclear accidents are rare also, as are gas pipelines blowing up, and so on. Would we dismiss concerns, say, about discrimination, if it “didn’t happen that often?” Also I think other metrics could be used.. like economic damage, health damage, and acres burned up unintentionally. For example, 300K acres is the size of some Ranger Districts.

Biggs, the forestry and fire behavior expert at New Mexico Highlands University, says he understands the angst and frustration. Many of his students and colleagues have had to evacuate or had property damaged.

“Either their homes have been lost or the families’ homes have been lost. We’ve got faculty and staff that have lost homes and it becomes very chaotic and there’s certainly periods of going through this shock,” he says, “and so it’s very difficult to cut through that.”

But Biggs and others are calling for cooler heads to prevail.

“Let’s wait for all the facts and the science” to come out in an investigation, he says. “The backlash that we’re seeing in the media and by the politicians is right now a very emotional argument. The one thing that’s for sure is these are not controlled laboratory experiments,” he says. “And so sometimes these things, you know, are just unpredictable in terms of the weather patterns, and this weather at times was unprecedented.”

3 thoughts on “Interpreting the New Mexico Fires: I. Who Determines What is Reaction vs. Overreaction?”

  1. Almost 3,000 personnel on the fire and over 3,500 acres burned so far and no containment estimated. I can’t help but think if greater resources were applied early on fires like these could be stopped rather than managed.
    I think the most important thing we can do to save our forests is to put these fires out.

    • Bob: I agree. I think a major problem with many of these prescribed fires (and I am definitely not including the “let it burn” decisions), is poor project design and management. Too much fuel, inexperienced personnel, poor ignition strategy, and insufficient firebreaks seem to be the problem(s) in many of these instances. Not sure about this fire, but I’m guessing one or more of these factors is in play. Abrupt changes in the weather are sometimes at fault, too, but usually it seems like human error is the main problem. And that can be diminished with experience.

  2. Sharon: Dr Zybach and three other fire experienced professionals a few years ago authored a proposed easy to use and access vehicle and process to give every person, family, business impacted in some way by woodland fire outline of how to report the damage to your assets, your body, your emotional state of mind. It is a self reporting of YOUR assessment of what you lost; the value to you of what you lost. I thought it was valuable as it gave anyone and everyone a chance to sit and write down the result of one particular wildland fire on one person.

    It was an outlet for anger, surprise, the suddenness of the loss and losses. It was a way to vent, to organize your thoughts and do it while the immediate was fresh and before time and pondering had altered your reality of that moment.

    Bob presented it to the Oregon Board of Forestry and it went nowhere. Not as much as any follow up. And we all know that issue: trespass on bureaucratic turf. Sandbox reaction. I didn’t make it and you can’t do that in my sandbox.

    It was the work of professional foresters, retired USFS Forest Supervisor, Zybach with a PhD in fire history and mapping. And I would say has been relevant ever since they proposed it. The issue is always, money, and who would collate the gathered information. The Feds have the money. But I think county governments need to participate and create the plan to collate and distribute the claims in categories for local administrators who represent local interests and people, including those who vote. I have zero faith, today, when that kind of data and response need falls into a bin in the faceless bureaucracy and ping ponged forever because they is just how it works—-or fails the public in so many ways for so many picayune ways.

    I think that the collection and collating is valuable if only because it gives an overview of individual views of fire outcome. It gives people and organizations a place to have the insult to their personal wellbeing recorded for later reference. And it allows participation in a process to move forward with better ideas and responses to catastrophic events. Fire is not the only issue. All kinds of weather events, upcoming blackouts of the national electrical grid as craven Green New Deal shuts down power sources with no replacement on line. Not by direct order. But by an unplanned regulatory future. Coal, gas, nuclear nearing expensive maintenance and uncertain regulatory future, and capital is conserved for the unknown and then known withers on the vine and goes dark. When you have growth in need for cooling and heating, for the machinery of capitalism, and a government removing electrical generation capacity and no bedrock guarantees for future power to seamlessly come on line as “base” power to work in dark, windless nights, in a drought, and every drop of water diverted to irrigation is precluded from hydropower creation at every powerhouse downstream to the sea, a cumulative loss of millions of MegaWatt hours, black outs are coming and with them chaos and disruption and outcomes as difficult as fire, storms, and geological movements, volcanism.

    If we cannot gather self reporting information by fire victims, I doubt if there ever will be an in place system to manage national emergencies, unforeseen disasters. Again, we have the physical means, the national wealth, and not the political desire or consternation. Tomorrow is about having more money than your opponent in the November election. Period. The public is that piglet one too many for a spot to suckle.


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