Burn Scar

The burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire pictured Thursday, June 9, 2022.

A bill that originally would’ve banned prescribed burns in the spring has morphed into legislation that would prohibit planned fires anytime the National Weather Service puts out a warning that extreme weather conditions could lead to risky fire danger.

A committee substitute for Senate Bill 21 got through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

Last month, Sen. Ron Griggs (R-Alamogordo) prefiled legislation that would’ve barred prescribed burns anytime between March 1 and May 31. Lawmakers tabled the bill and brought it back last week with different guidelines, proposing a ban in the spring, and only when the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning for extreme wind, hot temperatures and low humidity.

After Monday’s amendments, the proposed fire ban would now apply anytime there’s a red flag warning, not just in the spring, but year-round

Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) was the only lawmaker to oppose the bill. He said it reads more like a memorial because it doesn’t have any repercussions if violated.

“Your bill doesn’t have a consequence,” he said during the committee hearing. “So it says ‘You can’t do this.’ Well, if I do it, so what?”

The U.S. Forest Service ignited two prescribed fires that merged to become the Hermits Peak-Caf Canyon Fire. Griggs said this bill will offer protection for anyone planning burns or those who suffer from out-of-control wildfires.

“Last year, New Mexico was ravaged by wildfire,” Griggs said.

Laura McCarthy is the state forester for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. She said the measure won’t actually do what it says and would limit how forests are managed. Some land and vegetation need wind-driven fires to stay healthy, she added.

“It doesn’t accomplish anything to change future outcomes. It doesn’t repair the damage that’s been done,” she said. “And it doesn’t send a message to the U.S. Forest Service, who is really the target of our collective anger, at what happened.”

Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) asked McCarthy if the state regularly lights fires on red flag days. McCarthy said yes, adding that for prescribed burns on state-owned lands, it’s the State Land Office that authorizes ignition — not the New Mexico Forestry Division.

Other members of the public who didn’t support the bill said they’re worried this would lead to more restrictions on prescribed burns, especially for private landowners. They argued that the practice can help reduce the risk of future wildfires.

However, Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) pointed out that many in opposition reiterated the point that nobody should do burns when the National Weather Service calls out the extreme weather conditions.

“It just seems like a no-brainer,” he said. “Don’t start a prescribed burn on a red flag day.”

Wirth said he’s not sure how much power this bill would actually have over the federal government but that it would definitely send a message to them, despite what McCarthy said. Sen. Bill O’Neil (D-Albuquerque) backed that up.

“I just feel this is an important signal to send,” O’Neil said.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) proposed on Monday to cut the entire portion of the bill that bans planned burns in spring during a red flag warning. 

What would be left of the bill is the section that prohibits private landowners from conducting prescribed fires when local or state restrictions are made due to wind or drought conditions.

However, Griggs said he wanted to talk over that with Ivey-Soto before the measure heads to the full Senate. Ivey-Soto withdrew the proposal before a vote on it so they could discuss it later.

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