ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) Forestry Division has been busy this fiscal year putting out the “fires you’ll never hear about,” according to Laura McCarthy, state forester and forestry division director of EMNRD.
“We’ve been extremely busy this summer actually. It’s not the really big dramatic fires like last year, but we have been addressing and putting out numerous starts on pretty much a daily basis,” McCarthy explained.
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In 2022, New Mexico saw a record-setting wildfire season. So far in fiscal year 2023, which started on Oct. 1, 2022, and will end on Sept. 30, 2023, the Forestry Division and cooperators have responded to 523 wildfires on state and private land. In fiscal year 2022, crews responded to 508 wildfires. While it may not seem like much of a difference, the number of acres that have burned so far this year has seen a dramatic decrease.
**Note: The numbers provided by the Forestry Division reflect fires on state and private land, including ones that may have started on federal land but crossed into state and private land. Small fires that are less than one acre are also counted if the Forestry Division responded.
According to the Forestry Division, 523 fires this fiscal year resulted in 35,388 acres burned. In fiscal year 2022, the 508 wildfires burned 495,867 acres. The total number of acres burned has seen a near 93% decrease from fiscal year 2022 compared to 2023.
McCarthy said the ignitions of the fires were comparable in both years, from human and natural causes, but the fires started in fiscal year 2022 were much harder to control and suppress because of the extreme drought conditions.
McCarthy added that the Forestry Division has recently been busy putting out small fire starts in southern New Mexico. “Pretty much everything has been lightning starts since about the first week of July. Had there been a lot of human-caused fires, we would have put statewide fire restrictions in place if it was dry enough to justify it, but we weren’t getting the new starts from humans,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said if the number of new fires starts goes down and conditions return to normal, firefighters will hopefully get a chance to rest. “Then we will make our firefighters available to go out of state to assist others just like they have assisted us when we really needed them last year,” McCarthy explained.
To help the Forestry Division manage the 43 million acres of state and private lands, the New Mexico Legislature this year approved 50 new full-time positions for wildfire response. McCarthy said that will bring the total number of full-time positions to more than 140.
The Forestry Division also now has its first wildland firefighter job series which McCarthy said was created by the State Personnel Office. It is supposed to help provide more fire prevention and response resources in the state and help retain workers. “So it’s specific to wildland firefighting. It’s designed to be competitive with the federal positions in wildland firefighting so that we can offer competitive wages and benefits, so people will want to work for the state as well as the federal agencies,” McCarthy explained.
Through the new job series, the Forestry Division will have one hotshot crew based in Las Vegas and Socorro. “We picked those locations because there are not ample federal resources to respond quickly to wildfires. So, there were basically gaps in terms of having resources to rapidly be able to respond to wildfires, which is absolutely key to keep them small and less expensive,” McCarthy said. The positions are in the process of being created. To see current job openings with EMNRD, click here.