SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – After a prescribed burn spun out of control to create the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, lawmakers took steps to help boost safety this year. Now, the Governor has signed into law a ban on prescribed burns during a ‘red flag warning.’ But what does that mean?
The National Weather Service uses a flag system to indicate local weather conditions at any given time. A red flag warning means that the current wind, temperature, and humidity “are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.”
A new bill signed into law April 4, 2023, bans prescribed burns during those conditions. Lawmakers say it’s a key step to boosting safety.
“I want to thank the Governor and my colleagues in the Senate and House who heard the cries of communities that have been devastated by out-of-control prescribed burns. Though the bill had a rough start, the legislature rallied around this cause to pass the bill with unanimous, bipartisan support, demonstrating our commitment to preventing the next devastating wildfire,” bill sponsor, Sen. Ron Griggs (R-Alamogordo) said in a press release. “I am proud to have sponsored this important step forward to better address how we manage our forests.”
How big of an impact will the bill have? State law already prevents private landowners from conducting burns when the “state forester or a county or municipality issues restrictions prohibiting a prescribed burn because of drought conditions.” But this new law adds to that that you can’t start a burn during a red flag warning.
Yet, even if this new law had been in effect earlier, it may not have prevented the massive Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire. “There was no Red Flag Warning in effect for the prescribed fire area or the fire weather zone on April 6, 2022,” the official review of the incident says. Red Flag Warnings were in effect for other areas, but the new state law doesn’t specify exactly what areas should be taken into account; the law only says people should take into account “the area where the prescribed burn is planned to take place.”
The new law (and the old law) also does not apply to “agricultural burning to clear fields of stubble or slash or to manage invasive species impacting crop production, as part of orchard management or to clear irrigation ditches of vegetation and debris in order to improve or restore efficient water flow and delivery,” as those are outside the legal definition of “prescribed burn” in New Mexico.
On top of that, the prescribed burn that led to a massive 300,000+ acre fire last year was part of a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn – a federal burn. And the U.S. Forest Service says the new law doesn’t apply to them.
“As we understand the newly enacted State law, it only applies to private landowners,” Ivan Diego Knudsen, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service told KRQE News 13. “However, while the Forest Service does not strictly prohibit the ignition of prescribed burns on national forests during red flag conditions, prescribed burn plans, and the decisions to allow ignition, are based on site-specific assessments of the conditions necessary to achieve the resource objectives of the proposed prescribed burn safely, and to contain the prescribed burn to the planned burn area.”