SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Last year, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire burned more than 300,000 acres, all after a federally operated prescribed burn spun out of control. Now, legislators are considering a bill to ban prescribed burns during certain conditions to prevent another out-of-control fire.
Senate Bill 21, sponsored by Sen. Ron Griggs (R-Doña Ana, Eddy & Otero), would limit the time when people can do prescribed burns. The bill would prohibit prescribed burns in the months of March, April, and May, when a Red Flag Warning has been issued by the National Weather Service.
The general idea is to add an element of caution to the process of prescribed fires. “When they get out of hand, the loss has shown to be catastrophic and tragic,” Griggs explains. “So, to stop a prescribed burn from happening that day may well be worth the risk.”
Already part of most prescribed burns is a “go, no go” test. On the day of the scheduled burn, the burn managers generally take into consideration weather conditions and also do a test burn, explains, Laura McCarthy, the State Forester, explained in a Senate Conservation Committee meeting on Thursday. If the conditions are good, the burn is a “go.” If the conditions are too dangerous, it’s a “no-go.”
The bill, then, would simply add to that already existing safety check. If there is a Red Flag Warning, the burn would be postponed.
The idea of using Red Flag Warnings as an indicator was substituted into the bill. The initial version of the bill simply banned prescribed burns outright from March through May. Such a blanket ban seemed too strong for many legislators.
Now that the ban has been limited to only Red Flag Warning days, more legislators and members of the public spoke in favor of the bill. “We originally opposed the bill, but we do now support it because of the amendment,” said Katelin Rose Spradley, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.
Some speakers did express concern about how the bill could affect private landowners and agricultural operations. But Griggs clarified: “If you go out there with your torch, you haven’t met anywhere near the requirements to actually do a prescribed burn,” he explained. In other words, given the legal definition of a “prescribed burn,” he says there are exemptions for agricultural activities and the like.