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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

In Worst Forest Fires in U.S. History, a Few Heads Up Are in Order

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The country has arrived at the most lethal wildfire season in state history, and we are still more than three months away from the official start of winter.

New Mexico firefighters as much as doubled their response time. On this steep spit of scrub desert outside this city, they found a devil’s rattlesnake in a ditch that had somehow been frozen solid. Rescue crews employed everything from rope heaters to ski masks to reach the baby serpent, unable to withstand the reeking air.

Despite the loss of so many lives and homes, no one is currently making specific predictions about what New Mexico will see this winter — when the weather will get colder, and while the snows are so far far ahead of schedule that “snowbirds” typically are on the move, if they move at all.

“The short answer is: Next winter will be better than this one,” said Robert Goedecke, the director of the New Mexico Forest Service.

Next winter would make New Mexico’s record-breaking-and-more-soon trajectory look easy compared with California and Nevada, where fires are spread too thinly to fight, despite the last round of rainfall. California has seen 6,500 homes burned, bringing its yearly record to 2,800 structures — about the size of the Lower Manhattan office building — and possibly more than 7,000.

In Nevada, more than 1,000 structures have been destroyed, according to a new report issued Thursday by the Center for Fire Safety and Technology. The highest number, 1,912, was in a state forest area, not far from Grand Teton National Park.

While many commentators say climate change is impacting the fires, the damage is largely attributable to human activity, including an aging national forest system and unchecked development on hillsides that have proven so vulnerable to wildfires, as well as drought, in places where too little rain has fallen this year.

Along an enclosed road outside Palo Verde National Park in northwestern New Mexico, jagged rock pines are still blackened by last month’s fire that ignited just after sunset and drew 65,000 people to the town, some seeking rescue or refuge for the night.

Now the top priority is restoring the land with healthy fuels, trees and shrubs. Trees that were the only plant species in the area are being replaced with more drought-resistant species. Fire departments have so many engines now that drivers are sometimes forced to pull over when they see one and get out while it is still warm enough to see.

“Every day that we don’t put resources on it, we are losing time,” said Scott Stoller, a spokesman for the New Mexico Forest Service. “We are working so hard to prevent any more communities from going up in flames.”

Most New Mexicans are aghast that the state is facing such a cruel disaster — at least in relation to its comparatively happy past. Twenty years ago, fire was rare in New Mexico; the state’s firefighting budget was not a part of the state budget. Now it stands at more than $50 million, outpacing the state’s general fund.

Many communities have discussed ways to prevent a repeat, pledging to volunteer to help their neighbors if and when fire season comes again. In the high country, a wing of the city of Albuquerque has been mobilized for the purposes of catastrophe response, which includes 24/7 backup from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“In this era of data-driven decision making, when it comes to public safety, fire is just as much a science as crime or traffic,” said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller. “And New Mexico has a proven track record of getting it right.”

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