The New Mexico Legislature passed the Prescribed Burning Act (HB57; NMSA 1978, Section 68-5-1 et seq.) in 2021. The statute is based on House Memorial 42, which studied the barriers to expanding prescribed burning on private lands. The Prescribed Burning Act does the following:
- establishes a negligence standard for any prescribed burning on private lands;
- creates a training program through New Mexico State University for landowners and contractors to build the skills to conduct prescribed burns safely;
- provides an incentive for landowners and contractors to get that training, so that they are only liable for actual damages instead of double damages. (Currently any landowner or their agent who conducts prescribed burning is liable for double damages; the Prescribed Burning Act reduces the damages to actual value for those who are trained and certified);
- creates a certification program through the Forestry Division; and
- creates a model prescribed burning permit for counties and municipalities to use if they choose to issue permits.
*The Prescribed Burning Act does not apply to agricultural, acequia, or ditch burning.
Prescribed Burning Defined
Prescribed burning is the controlled application of fire to achieve specific natural resource management objectives.
Ecosystems rely on periodic fire to remain healthy, but decades of fire suppression have stifled this process leaving our forests, woodlands, and watersheds susceptible to various environmental and human threats. The following are some of the numerous benefits of prescribed burning.
- Hazardous fuel reduction reduces the threat of catastrophic wildfire to communities and watersheds.
- Improves watershed health.
- Minimizes the spread of harmful insects and disease.
- Enhances wildlife habitat.
- Encourages new growth of native vegetation.
- Fire is an inexpensive and rapid method for disposing of slash following thinning projects.
- Low intensity fires increase soil fertility by converting nutrients bound in dead plant tissues and the soil surface to more available forms. This recycling effect indirectly increases mineralization rates through its impacts on soil microorganisms (Schoch and Binkley 1986). New Mexico’s endangered Pecos Sunflower is a good example of a plant that relies on this process to survive.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does the Prescribed Burning Act expand the use of prescribed burning in New Mexico?
Under prior state law landowners were strictly liable for prescribed burning activities and subject to double damages. Under the Prescribed Burning Act a negligence standard is established for prescribed burning on private lands. The negligence standard, provision of training, and establishment of a certification program will improve the safety of prescribed burning and make private insurance more accessible and affordable. The Prescribed Burning Act also reduces recoverable damages from double to actual for certified prescribed burn managers. Reducing the recoverable damages from a prescribed burn from double to actual for certified prescribed burn managers provides an incentive to obtain that training.
Is prescribed burning effective in moderating extreme wildfires?
Yes. For example, in August 2020, the Medio Fire was moving quickly toward the Santa Fe Ski Basin. Luckily, a recent prescribed burn area blocked its way, preventing the loss of important recreation infrastructure. By contrast, the Luna Fire spread off of federal land onto private lands and threatened more than 4,000 homes. No prescribed burns had taken place on those private lands. New Mexico had to bring in an expensive fire management team to contain the fire.
Is prescribed burning cost-effective?
Prescribed burning is the lowest-cost method of reducing overgrown brush and trees. It costs under $200 per acre. Cutting trees ranges from $500 to $2,000 per acre, and suppressing wildfire costs even more, from $100,000 to $1 million per day, depending on the circumstance.
What do other states do about wildfire management?
With the passage of the Prescribed Burning Act, New Mexico joins 21 other states in implementing prescribed burning laws or policies.
Do prescribed burns impact air quality?
Unlike wildfires, prescribed burns can be planned for days where there will be the lowest impact to air quality possible. Prescribed burns also prevent more intense wildfires that would have a more detrimental and widespread impact on air quality.