In this June 4, 2013 file photo, smoke and flames billow from the Thompson Ridge wildfire in the Valles Caldera in the Jemez Mountains. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

Big fires are as certain as taxes in the Southwest, fueled lately by drought, overgrown forests and climate change.

Wildfires are burning hundreds of thousands of acres, changing landscapes, destroying homes and costing more than a billion dollars a year. Preparing teams to fight them and repairing burned land to reduce flooding after a wildfire costs millions more.

Last year, one wildfire also cost the lives of 19 Arizona firefighters.

The mounting challenges brought more than 150 scientists and land managers together in Tucson, Ariz., this week to brainstorm the best strategies to help Southwestern ecosystems and communities adapt to wildfire.

“This requires re-envisioning our relationship to fire,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, co-director of the Association for Fire Ecology in Eugene, Ore.

Communities need to learn to live with fire, said Ingalsbee, one of the conference organizers. “Massive siege-like suppression spectacles that try to contain and control wildfires when conditions make them humanly impossible to stop are hugely expensive to taxpayers, damage the land and put firefighters at unnecessary extra risk,” he said.

While drought and fire have been a normal part of Southwestern ecosystems for centuries, climate change is contributing to larger wildfires and conditions affecting huge swaths of landscape.

“The new fundamental question is, can ecosystems remain intact in light of future climate change?” said Don Falk, associate professor at the Institute for the Environment at the University of Arizona. Landscape-scale changes, where wildfires burn 250,000 acres or more, threaten water supplies, wildlife habitat and economic development, he said.

The rate of the changes and the probability of more change ahead in the Southwest as average temperatures increase is raising questions about how land managers should restore forests after a fire. “Do we try to keep things the way they were before climate change, and how practical is that?” Falk said.

Using fire to fight fires is a big topic of conversation at the conference, Ingalsbee said. New Mexico has for years used prescribed fires to reduce the severity of unplanned wildfires.

Prescribed fires used on a regular basis thin out trees and other flammable vegetation, restore overgrown forests to a healthy state and even enrich the soil. Frequent smaller fires managed by fire crews mimic the natural fire cycle that once existed in some forest types, such as ponderosa pine.

The cycle was broken from the late 1800s to the late 1900s as fire suppression, logging and livestock grazing changed the landscape. Southwestern forests grew dense with vegetation and ripe for massive wildfires.

Over the long run, thinning and prescribed fires to reduce the scale and scope of wildfires is a more cost-effective use of taxpayer money than spending it to fight and clean up after a massive conflagration, said participants at the fire ecology conference. Falk said there’s about a 10-to-1 savings in the costs of treating forests compared to the costs of fighting wildfires. “We know that when you send out air tankers and Type I crews, you are spending millions of dollars per week,” he said.

Firefighting costs alone have averaged more than $1.5 billion a year since 2008, according to a study by Headwaters Economics, an independent research group. That doesn’t include the costs of replacing homes or addressing flood damage caused by heavy rains on fire-stripped soils.

Communities have no say over how fires are fought, but they have plenty to say about how they prepare for wildfire, said Alexander Evans, research director for the Forest Guild in Santa Fe.

A prepared community would have houses constructed to withstand fire and have properties free of thick vegetation and weeds that fuel wildfires. “There’s a long way to go to get to that golden ideal,” Evans said.

Communities in high fire risk areas, in the meantime, can follow Ready, Set, Go, an International Association of Fire Chiefs program that seeks to improve dialogue between firefighters and residents, Evans said. The program teaches people to prepare the items such as clothes, medicine and valuables they would want to take in case a wildfire forces an evacuation, as well as a plan for where to go and how to stay in touch with family.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

On the Web

• For more information in making your property “firewise,” visit www.firewise.org.

• Ready, Set, Go program tips for New Mexicans facing wildfire are available at www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SFD/documents/RSGActionGuideNM.pdf.

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