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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU researcher looking for ways to make forests more resilient before wildfires strike

Wildfires may be nothing new to the arid Southwest, but extremely dry conditions have led to several high-profile fires in just the last month, including the massive half-million-acre Wallow Fire in Arizona and the recent-and-growing Las Conchas Fire just outside of Los Alamos.

"Obviously, it's been really hot and really dry," said Doug Cram, a New Mexico State University researcher and Extension specialist who studies forest and riparian health issues. "When you have those weather conditions and elevated fuel levels, it's going to burn - hot."

He works regularly with the U.S. Forest Service and the state forestry division on forest health issues. He says he's curious to see what can be learned from a forest management perspective following a year as dry as 2011.

"New Mexico is in a drought 66 percent of the time," he said. "Fire is a part of these systems; it always has been. The question is, 'How are we going to manage our forests from a resource perspective?'"

Cram said that historically, forests and grasslands across the West were maintained through frequent, natural wildfires, which thinned fuels and made high-intensity wildfires less common. Smoke from those fires is also natural, but made worse and a bigger health concern when fuels are abundant.

"We need to make the land more resilient to wildfire," he said. "We can modify the fuel loads of these areas, and help prevent intense, tree crown fires by thinning the forest and conducting prescribed burns."

He said particularly in the Southwest, trees grow slowly. If precious topsoil is washed away when the rains return, it's hard for those trees to grow back. If the fire is intense enough, it's also possible for some forest areas to turn to shrubland or for grassland to turn to barren land for a time following a fire.

The Las Conchas fire is burning in an area devastated by a similar fire 11 years ago. Cram said since that time, more effort has been put into thinning vegetation in that area and he wants to see whether it burns differently than before. He plans to visit the area soon.

Cram also warns other forest and wildfires are still possible across New Mexico until wet conditions return. People living in areas prone to wildfire can invest in metal roofs and remove flammable vegetation and materials around their homes.