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The federal government started New Mexico’s largest wildfire. It had good intentions.

Controlled burns are more dangerous but more necessary than ever.

A person wearing a red helmet and bright yellow top uses a hoe on a smoking, blackened patch of forest floor.
A firefighter in Mora, New Mexico, working to put out a wildfire hot spot in May. The Calfs Canyon and Hermits Peak fires merged into New Mexico’s largest wildfire in April.
Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images
Neel Dhanesha covered science and climate change at Vox. Prior to Vox, Neel was an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine and an assistant producer at Radiolab.

In the past, summer has marked the beginning of wildfire season. Colorado would see four months of fires; California’s fires usually burned between July and October. But that was the past. This year, the US has already seen 29,966 wildfires burn through 2,790,609 acres across the country, far above the 10-year averages of 23,212 wildfires and 1,125,002 acres by this point in the year — and it’s only June.

One of those wildfires, the largest in New Mexico’s history, took shape on April 22. Or, to be more accurate, that was the day two existing fires — the Hermits Peak Fire and the Calf Canyon Fire — merged, growing into a conflagration that, as of June 14, had blazed through more than 325,000 acres and destroyed at least 366 homes and buildings. That’s startling enough, but in May the US Forest Service made an attention-grabbing announcement: The agency had intentionally started both fires in an attempt to prevent future wildfires.

Fire is a tricky business. The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires started as what are called prescribed burns, or fires that are used to clear forests of brush and trees that could easily ignite and turn into fuel in a wildfire. This might sound counterintuitive to many Americans — fire, after all, is also a cause of wildfires — but experts say prescribed burns, also known as controlled burns, are both a vital tool for preventing wildfires and a return to a natural order that has been suppressed for centuries. As climate change makes for hotter, drier summers and more volatile wildfires, and as we seem to be heading into a particularly destructive fire season, prescribed burns are becoming more necessary than ever. They’re also becoming harder to pull off.

“We can have every i dotted and every t crossed, but unfortunately, there’s still going to be a 1 percent chance that something might go wrong,” Nathan Miller, wildland fire superintendent at the Santa Fe Fire Department, told Recode. “Part of the reason we’re in this right now is because the forest is so thick and hadn’t had the potential to be mitigated through fuel reduction techniques like prescribed fire.”

Calm winds early in the year and moisture from winter snowfall used to make prescribed fires in New Mexico relatively predictable and easy to control, but this year is different. The past winter brought significantly less snow than the usual 60 to 80 inches, due in part to climate change exacerbating a megadrought in the Southwest. That lack of moisture, coupled with unseasonably strong winds in April and May and a heat wave currently gripping the region, is making burning conditions far less predictable than before. The Calf Canyon Fire grew out of a pile of wood that was burned in January, sat through three snowstorms, and was thought to be out but had in fact smoldered underground for more than two months.

In response to the fires in New Mexico, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a pause on all prescribed burns in the National Forest System while the agency conducts a 90-day review of best practices. It was a move that was equally motivated by safety and politics. “This needs to happen,” said President Joe Biden on a recent trip to Santa Fe, where he promised the federal government would pay for the cost of the wildfire response and met with survivors and first responders.

“Incidents like the one that happened in New Mexico make front-page news, and so people understandably conclude that it’s a really unsafe and risky thing to do,” said Lisa Dale, a wildfire researcher and lecturer at Columbia University’s Climate School. But the vast majority of prescribed burns are extremely safe. They’re the result of careful planning, subject to constant monitoring from the moment they begin to when the embers grow cold, and less than 1 percent of them escape from containment the way the fires in New Mexico did.

“Delivering fire to the forest is like giving medicine to a sick patient,” Dale told Recode. “Just like there are side effects from medicine, there are sometimes unfortunate side effects for prescribed fire. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”

Two firefighters wearing protective gear stand on a road, watching a fire burn on nearby grassland.
Firefighters monitor a prescribed burn at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in April 2021.
Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Forest Service’s statement said the agency conducts 90 percent of its prescribed burns from September to May, so the pause should have little impact on wildfire-prevention objectives, but experts are still worried. Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok Indigenous fire practitioner and professor of geography and planning at California State University Chico, thinks the moratorium creates a massive missed opportunity. The 10 percent of burns that the Forest Service usually conducts during the summer are still important: The next 90 days are the best time for prescribed burns in some parts of the country, and they likely won’t be that way once the pause ends.

A year without fire will mean those forests could become overgrown with plants that could fuel wildfires or make future prescribed burns harder to pull off safely, and climate change is also making weather models less reliable — which means it will be difficult to predict optimal burn conditions for the future. “You’ve now missed a year of being able to do some of that work,” Hankins said.

Fire is an old and essential tool

This year’s wildfire season is only likely to get worse as summer heat arrives in force, and most of the country’s attention will be on putting those fires out. But there’s a lot we can learn about how to prevent those fires from starting and spreading to begin with. Modern-day prescribed fire is just the latest iteration of a form of stewardship that has been practiced by Indigenous communities for generations. North American forests evolved around that fire; it became an essential aspect of the natural cycle. But centuries of colonial oppression of American Indian culture in the United States led to forest policies that called for all fires to be put out as quickly as possible, whether intentionally set as acts of stewardship or naturally started by events like lightning strikes.

That slowly began shifting in the 1980s and ’90s, when federal officials realized their policies were causing forests to become overgrown with brush and trees that were fueling larger, more dangerous wildfires.

“We’re trying to put fire back into these places so they will be more resilient,” Hankins said, adding that while climate change is making wildfires more dangerous and prescribed burns more precarious, it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. “Climate has always changed, from the Indigenous perspective.”

In the past, that change has happened on longer time scales, and Indigenous communities would respond by paying attention to changes in the environment and responding accordingly. The increased volatility of modern-day climate change, Hankins said, is just more reason to pay close attention to how nature is changing.

One way to do that would be by looking at prescribed burns as something other than a fuel-reduction strategy. Fire can do much more than simply remove vegetation that could be fuel for wildfires, according to Bill Tripp, the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. It can also clear out pests and rejuvenate the soil, creating healthier plants for later seasons.

Most prescribed fires are “very regimented” and require “militaristic training,” said Tripp. That is, they focus on large crews coming into areas they may be unfamiliar with to clear out large swaths of land, emphasizing raw, quantifiable targets like acreage and fuel loads. In that approach, the forest becomes something to manage rather than live in and with.

Fixing America’s wildfire problem should start at the local level.

Prescribed burns set by agencies like the Forest Service tend to be months-long endeavors of high-level planning that sweep through patches of forest every few years. Indigenous fire practices, on the other hand, are based on constant local observation and repetition, with practitioners responding to subtle changes in vegetation and moisture. Instead of burning hundreds of thousands of acres in one sweep, cultural burns of the type Tripp conducts might focus on smaller areas but return throughout the year. Over the course of a season or a year, all those fires could add up to cover an area equal to a larger burn — they’re just done more holistically, taking local ecology into account.

“We’re not just burning to reduce fuels. We’re not going to just do this once and be done,” said Tripp, who prefers the term “intentional fire” to describe the burns he conducts. “There are all these other outcomes that can be derived if we slow down and do this right, and do it in perpetuity.”

Instead of spending months or years planning fires at the federal level, Hankins told Recode, local communities should be given the freedom to react quickly to environmental factors, setting smaller but more frequent fires as and when needed. Forests would become healthier and more resilient against wildfires, and each successive prescribed burn would become safer, with less chance of escaping.

Indigenous communities are especially well-suited for that kind of stewardship role, and for teaching others how to participate. “Indigenous people are connected to place,” Hankins said, “and it’s a lifelong connection, not just a career connection.”

Much of the land in need of that kind of care was stolen from Indigenous people, however, and they’ve been denied access to it for generations. Allowing them more autonomy to set intentional fires could be a step on the path toward righting that wrong. This would require changing how forest management works at the policy level, and rethinking ideas of ownership that we have come to take for granted.

But that will take time and politicking. In the meantime, the current system of prescribed burns will still be vital to keeping wildfires in check. Even if the Forest Service’s approach is flawed, those burns will be far more likely to stop the next massive wildfire than to start it.

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