Prescribed fires can impact severity of Southwest wildfires

Prescribed fires can impact severity of Southwest wildfires
Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - 10:30pm

During the last few years the Southwest has experienced several large wildfires in the region that have destroyed hundreds of homes and have claimed the lives of firefighters in Arizona.

Doug Cram, a wildland fire specialist at New Mexico State University, said during the current drought wildfires have been larger than in years past but it's not only because of the dry conditions.

"There's certainly plenty of fuel there that has built up over 40 or a hundred years," Cram said of the vegetation fueling wildfires.

Some areas of the nearly 140,000 acre Silver Fire in the Gila National Forest had not experienced a wildfire in about a century.

Cram said by getting rid of the dry vegetation through prescribed fires the amount of fuel available to burn will be much less and can assist firefighters in containing the fire.

"There's a space for firefighters to go in there and try to put in control lines or a back burn where there's not really high fuel conditions so that it's a safer environment," Cram said.

As the Silver Fire approached homes in Kingston, New Mexico, homeowner Jack Stewart said his home was saved by the firefighters who contained the fire and possibly a controlled burn sometime before the fire started.

"When the big fire started coming over the top of the mountain it didn't have anywhere to go," Stewart said.

He recalled seeing hundreds of firefighters on the mountain west of his home setting fires that cleared brush in what he described as being 'down to a science'.

Cram said the more vegetation you remove before a wildfire occurs, the more will be left after it's finished burning.

A prescribed fire can be done at different intensities clearing different amounts of vegetation depending on the purpose of the land.

If no brush and trees are cleared, a wildfire like in Ruidoso in June of 2012 can result in a hundred percent loss of vegetation and loss of property with 250 structures destroyed.

Cram added that if a fire spreads throughout a large area and kills off all of the vegetation it takes longer for recovery.

He said the first three years after a fire can cause flash flooding due to most precipitation running off the mountain terrain.

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