The Three Rivers Fire currently burning in the Lincoln National Forest in southern New Mexico ushered an early start to what officials predict will be an above-average wildfire season with the potential to cause catastrophic fire destruction in communities across the state.
Forestry and fire ecology experts at New Mexico State University issued a warning in the fire’s wake, saying it is a “wake-up call” as New Mexico residents head into late spring and summer.
“This could stack up to be a challenging fire season for New Mexico and the Southwest,” said Doug Cram, forestry and fire specialist for the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service.
Cram cited models from the National Weather Service showing above-normal wildland fire potential for all of New Mexico and areas within several neighboring states throughout May and June, indicating a greater-than-usual likelihood that “significant” wildfires may occur. He also noted a fire-risk assessment by the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute that warns 44 percent of New Mexico communities are at risk for high-severity fires.
“This will happen again, and we probably won’t be as lucky to get snow, rain, cool temperatures or high-humidity levels in late May or early June,” Cram said, noting weather conditions from a recent storm system helped slow the growth of the Three Rivers Fire.
The fire, which started a half-mile north of the Three Rivers Campground in Lincoln County April 26, charred about 12,000 acres of forestland over a 24-hour period. It was about 13 percent contained by late April 29, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Cram said it is too early to get a complete understanding of the impact caused by the fire. But, he added, emergency fire response teams will be able to assess the damage and determine threats from flooding, soil erosion and instability after completing a post-fire soil burn severity map. If conditions allow, the mapping process can begin while a wildfire remains active.
“From a management standpoint, we need to know what the burn severity map tells us,” he said.
The recovery will almost certainly involve reforestation of burned areas, said Owen Burney, superintendent of the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora, one of a dozen research centers in the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station. It is the only research center in the southwestern United States that focuses on forest nursery technologies, tree improvement and eco-physiology of young forest trees to facilitate ecological restoration and commercial reforestation.
Given the scope of the fire, Burney said, it is likely that “some important genetics on that landscape” may be permanently lost.
For Burney, wildfires like the Three Rivers Fire illustrate the urgency to invest in the entire reforestation pipeline and embrace a two-pronged approach to forest management that focuses on preventative measures to control high-density conditions and prescribed burning. Implementing science-based tree-planting strategies also is critical, he said.
“Over the next decade, we’re still going to have these large catastrophic fires occur,” he said, “and when they do, they’re going to be devastating because they remove a lot of the seed-source material to help for natural regeneration. What we’re trying to do is jumpstart those forests back into the right trajectory through artificial regeneration or tree planting.”
The Mora research center produces more than 300,000 forest seedlings each year, Burney said. But recent studies estimate New Mexico needs between 174 million to 500 seedlings.
That’s why Burney advocates for legislation that would create the New Mexico Reforestation Center. The proposed center would address the impacts of climate change on the state’s forests and meet the state’s current and future reforestation needs by establishing a seed bank program, nursery program and planting program, he said.
“Development of this center would increase the nursery capacity to 5 million seedlings per year,” he said.
The most recent effort to fund the center went before the New Mexico Legislature earlier this year but was unsuccessful. Burney and other advocates, however, remain optimistic about bringing back the measure before lawmakers during the next legislative session, he said.
Burney and Cram agreed the state moved “in the right direction” when lawmakers enacted the Prescribed Burning Act. The new law clarifies the liability structure for private landowners who conduct prescribed burns and creates a certification program for performing such burns safely.
Cram said he hopes the measure results in increased prescribed burning, a tool used by state and federal land managers to clear out dead and overgrown vegetation that may fuel wildfires.
“The public has to become aware that fire is a part of our system,” Burney said. “The question is: Do you want it to be an out-of-control fire or a managed fire? I would rather have it done in a managed way so that we protect structures and people.”
With fire season now underway, Cram said homeowners can take steps to prepare themselves and protect their properties. He teaches the free webinar series “Learning to Live with Fire” through the Cooperative Extension Service and advises residents to review the wildfire evacuation checklist accessible at https://bit.ly/3gN3R2m.
“From a community standpoint, there is still time for folks to prepare themselves, their homes, and their yards for the fire season,” he said.