SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — In a bid to reduce wildfire risk, the House has advanced a bill making it easier for residents to burn brush and wood debris on their property. The bill, passed unanimously Thursday, removes severe liability provisions written into territorial law 20 years before New Mexico became a state and about 100 years before residents became aware of global warming.

“Unfortunately, an 1882 territorial-era statute still on the books imposes strict liability and double damages for harm caused as a result of burning, thus discouraging the prescribed burning necessary to keep our rangelands and forests healthy,” said Democratic Rep. Matthew McQueen of Galisteo.

Decades of fire suppression aimed at protecting increasingly suburban populations across the mountain west have interrupted natural fire cycles that clear undergrowth. That makes fires harder to control when they break out and more likely to incinerate large trees that would be merely be singed in a smaller blaze.

Fires in New Mexico last summer renewed awareness of the state’s increasing wildfire risk, as undergrowth has increased but rain and snowfall have decreased.

Drought data indicates that New Mexico could face a much more severe fire season this year. Nearly 100% of the state is facing a moderate drought, compared with 12% last year, according to data this week from the USDA’s drought monitor.

Some 54% of the state’s area is facing an “exceptional drought” — the highest level–compared with 0% at the same last year,

Under rules in the bill passed by the House, residents could still be liable for negligent burning. But when landowners burn on their property in proper conditions, they wouldn’t be as easy to sue.The bill also creates a prescribed burning certificate training program that would further limit liability. It passed the House 63-0, and will next be heard in the Senate.


Associated Press writer Susan Montoya contributed to this story from Albuquerque.


Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.