Our view: Don’t leave fires burning

April 26, 2017 GMT

For a place that prides it self on a sense of history, some Santa Fe-area folks are ignoring the recent past. How soon have people forgotten the ravages of human-caused forest fires? The loss of memory has happened quickly, considering what has been happening in the Jemez Ranger District lately.

For the second weekend in a row, campers have left behind multiple unattended and abandoned campfires, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Rangers found 11 still-burning campfires and extinguished them before any harm was caused. The weekend before, there were five or six unattended or abandoned fires.

This, despite the reality that fire danger in the Santa Fe National Forest is high, and much of Central and Northern New Mexico has been under a fire weather watch (a condition so named because of a combination of lack of humidity, sustained winds and dry fuels). Welcome rains this week could alleviate dry conditions, but all campers, hikers and forest visitors must take better care. After all, the rains will stop and the forests will dry out. That’s when fires can be dangerous.


Remember, back in April 1996, the Dome Fire burned some 16,000-plus acres in the Jemez Mountains. A sloppy camper failed to put out a fire properly; an errant spark, winds and dry conditions spread the blaze. The forest was a tinderbox and will be again. When conditions are severe, forest service workers have enough to do tracking down lightning-caused fires or those blazes that occur after a power line falls and ignites underbrush or a dry branch. They don’t need to have to police humans who are too lazy or uninformed to put out campfires properly.

Last summer, the problem area for unattended or abandoned fires was the Pecos-Las Vegas District. Rangers there put together a brochure showing how to put out fires, one easy step at a time. Jemez-area workers now are driving around and distributing similar materials to campers. Sometimes, campers are not simply careless, they just don’t know the correct way to ensure a fire is dead.

Visitors should make sure to bring a shovel and plenty of water so that all fires can be extinguished. All the way. Cold, dead ashes, in other words, with not a single warm ember remaining. It takes more than one dousing with water, too. Drown the remains of the fire and listen for the hissing to stop. Use the shovel to mix the dirt and water. Add more water. Then, stay around until the remains of the fire are cool. All of them. The best way to ensure the fire is out is to sift ashes by hand. That way, you can be certain no hot spots remain. Don’t use rocks to extinguish a fire, either. They stay hot and air can funnel around them, reigniting coals and, eventually, a new fire.

Even before starting a fire, follow these commonsense guidelines. Build any fire away from overhanging branches or bushes. Avoid steep slopes and all flammable materials — rotten stumps, logs, dry grass or leaves. Use existing fire rings or rock-lined fire pits when available. Keep materials that could burn at least 5 feet away from the fire. In other words, wood for the fire should be stored away from flames. On windy days, don’t build. Before going to sleep, put out the blaze and never, ever leave fire unattended. While you are enjoying the forest, keep an eye out for suspicious smoke or unattended fires — call 911 to report a fire, and start putting it out, too.

Forest fires will happen. There are acts of nature and accidents. But the damage from humans can be prevented, even eliminated, if forest visitors take care. Together, we can prevent forest fires.