Humans have sparked half of the wildfires in the Southwest, and those fires have consumed about half of the acreage burned in recent years. Just in 2016, that totaled 200,000 acres. Abandoned campfires started roughly 44 percent of these fires, though vehicle exhaust pipes, cigarette butts, fireworks, power lines, debris burning and arson were also to blame. The Forest Stewards Guild and the Forest Trust released a report detailing these problems within days of the first blaze in the Santa Fe National Forest this spring, and aim to ignite a conversation around how to reduce such fires.
An abandoned campfire started the Osha Fire, which quickly earned 44 personnel and a helicopter tasked with quashing the 36-acre fire. It was reported Saturday, April 7, and was fully contained by 8 am on Monday, April 9. The Forest Service had the resources ready to go after calling in fire crews weeks ahead of schedule, says Bruce Hill, spokesman for the Santa Fe National Forest.
In these dry conditions, fire season is taking off about two months earlier than usual. For those who love to hike, bike and camp in the national forest, there's already worry about smoke and forest closures, not to mention the other woes that accompany fires.
Zander Evans, executive director of the Forest Stewards Guild and author of the recent report, says it's time to take a look at what more could be done to prevent human-caused fires.
"We know that many fires are natural and we need some low-severity fires in our forest as part of their ecology," Evans says. "But then we see these other fires like Las Conchas or Tres Lagunas or the Wallow Fire that didn't have to happen and had really horrible effects for humans and natural communities."
Smokey Bear and his "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires" slogan has been cited among the most successful public awareness campaigns. But it has been 40 years since anyone studied the effectiveness of current wildfire prevention education efforts, as far as his research could tell.
Campfire bans—like the one for the Santa Fe National Forest that started Friday, April 13—seem ineffective. The Forest Service issued 51 citations last summer for violations of level one restrictions. Hill agrees there's a certain level of ignorance, willful or otherwise, about these bans, and they rely on some whistleblowing to track down people breaking the rules.
News about restrictions and fire danger often spreads though posted road signs, some of which are more clear than others. The urban myth among wildfire researchers is that, as Evans writes, "the sign with a shovel and bucket bearing the message 'required for camping' has been confused with a message about wilderness hygiene" rather than a checklist for thoroughly extinguishing a fire.
Perhaps, in an era of ubiquitous GPS-enabled devices, an upgrade is due?
"Given all the new technology and new understanding of selling people things and selling people messages, there have to be new, good ideas out there," Evans says. "Why can't we move in the direction of using some of that technology to reach folks?"
New approaches for reducing human-started fires could be as advanced as enabling phones to alert people as they enter areas with fire restrictions in place, or as basic as an idea from California to plant flags in fire pits reminding that a wet fire is a dead fire. They might recruit homeowners participating in Firewise and Fire Adapted Communities (programs on creating defensible space around houses) as prevention advocates. They could also lead to infrastructure changes, like installing solar panels on rural houses rather than burying power lines for a price of $100,000 per mile.
"If we can start the conversation, maybe we can come up with some great solutions that me, as a forester, might not think of," Evans says.
While the Forest Service automatically cross-posts the latest news to Facebook and Twitter, nothing more advanced is in the works, Hill says.
The Santa Fe National Forest has already restricted fires to developed sites this season, the first in a series of three bans. The next prohibits fires of any kind, stove fires, smoking, operating chainsaws, internal combustion engines and using vehicles off the road. The third stage is a total forest closure — gates close and lock and the presence of law enforcement increases to ticket people who go into the woods anyway. The last closure was in 2013. Making that move hinges on overall fire danger, as well as high-risk occasions, like July 4 and its inevitable fireworks, and resource shortages. Stage two is likely to come soon, Hill says, but he's "not aware of any discussions going right into stage three."
The decision aims to protect the forest from human ignitions, as well as to protect people from being in the backcountry when a fire starts.
"Just as the public relies on us to fight wildfires," Hill says, "the Forest Service counts on the public to help prevent them."
Smoke Impacts: Wildfire vs. Controlled Fire & How to Reduce Smoke Impacts in Your Home
6 pm Wednesday April 18. Free.
REI Community Room,
500 Market St.,
Post-Wildfire Flooding: Thinking Ahead of the Fire
6 pm Wednesday May 2. Free.
REI Community Room,
500 Market St.,
More information: santafefireshed.org