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Record Fires of 2011 Studied for Impacts

September 20, 2011
Bryan Bird (505) 988-9126 x1157
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Public Lands  
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Record Fires of 2011 Studied for Impacts

New GIS Analysis of Burn Severity Demonstrates Less Harm to Forests Than Commonly Reported
Contact: Bryan Bird (505) 988-9126 x1157

Albuquerque—The record setting fires of 2011 in theSouthwest were widely reported as disastrous, yet new analysis by WildEarthGuardians shows the fires burned mostly as would be expected and may havelong-term beneficial effects, with appropriate follow-up. Though the size of the individual firesbroke all records for New Mexico and Arizona and fire behaved uncharacteristicallyin at least one forest type -ponderosa pine – the fires mostly burned asexpected. The results, based on preliminary data, reinforce the facts that fireis a natural process in southwestern forests and will present challenges forcommunities that live in and nearby these forests. In addition, where the firesdid burn abnormally, attention is need on those particular forest types in theform of thinning and controlled burns.

Key findings:

  • Wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico account for17% of all acres burned in 2011 and that figure jumps to 37% if Texas isexcluded.
  • New Mexico and Arizona had 1,445 wildland firesto date, burning a total of 1,310,861 acres.
  • The Wallow Fire (AZ): Over 64% of the areawithin the fire perimeter burned at low severity or not at all, while just 16%burned at high severity and 20% at moderate severity.
  • The Horseshoe II Fire (AZ): Nearly 58% of the area within the burn perimeter burned atlow severity or not at all, while just 12% burned at high severity.
  • The Las Conchas Fire (NM): Nearly 20% of the fire area burned at high severity, 29%at moderate severity and 39% at low severity.
  • The Pacheco Fire (NM): Almost37% of the burn area burned at high severity and another 27% at moderateseverity.
  • Of the 11 western states, New Mexico has the 8thand Arizona the10th largest area of undeveloped, forested privateland bordering fire-prone public lands.
  • New Mexico has 600 square miles of undeveloped,forested private lands adjacent to fire-prone public lands and Arizona 400square miles.
  • New Mexico is 7th and Arizona 8thamong western states in the amount of forested land where homes have alreadybeen built next to public lands.

“Fire is a natural and inevitableforce of nature. Though the fires of 2011 were big, they behaved mostly as wewould expect.” Said Bryan Bird, forest ecologist for WildEarth Guardians andthe report’s author. “Forests are flammable and we must learn to live safelywith this awesome force of nature.”

The GIS analysis, performed by Bird’s Eye View GIS,demonstrates that four fires, each very different in region and the vegetationstypes burned were large, making up almost 40% of all the wildland acreage burnedin 2011 outside of Texas. The 7.5million acres burned in wildfires this year is above the 10-year average of 6million acres, but still far below the 145 million acres that burned on averageprior to 1800.

Fire in the vegetation types that typically experience longreturn intervals, but high severity behaved normally, for example thespruce-fir forest types and wetter mixed conifer forests. In drier, forest types that typicallyexperience short fire return intervals and low to moderate severity, the firesbehaved mostly as expected with one exception: ponderosa pine forest thatexperienced uncharacteristic “hotter” fire. Larger, hotter fires in this dry forest type arepredicted by scientists and result from forest management practices such aslivestock grazing and fire suppression in combination with drought and climatechange. Restoration and fuel management will be a high priority in the futurefor these dry forests.

“With limited financial resources,national forests must be managed strategically,” Said Bird. “We know how tofire proof homes but we cannot fireproof forests in the West. Therefore, weneed to spend money on a reasonable combination of controlled burning andthinning immediately around human communities.”

The report concludes that the fires likely did more goodthan harm in controlling fuels built up over years of fire suppression, butthat maintaining the lower fuel conditions with controlled burns and othermanagement will be critical. It also concludes that development of housing inthe wildland urban interface must be more tightly controlled in states likeArizona and New Mexico that still have significant development potential in fire-proneecosystems.


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Key findings: