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Bernhardt: Full-time firefighters needed

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With wildfire seasons lasting longer and creating more devastation, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt wants to see more full-time firefighters in his department.

Bernhardt, on a tour of New Mexico, stopped in Roswell on Tuesday where he visited with local officials and spoke with the editorial staff of the Roswell Daily Record about a variety of topics including the Great American Outdoors Act, payments in lieu of taxes and reducing crimes against indigenous women.

Bernhardt said he’s seen longer fire seasons over the last few years with more catastrophic fires.

Research backs up Bernhardt’s observation. A 2015 analysis of global meteorological data from 1979 to 2014 published in Nature Communications showed that fire seasons — when factors such as high temperatures, low humidity, dry conditions and wind most affect wildfires — had increased worldwide, in some areas by a month.

The researchers attributed that increase to higher temperatures, more severe and widespread droughts, and earlier snowmelt.

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Bernhardt acknowledged climate has a role in those changes.

“I believe that climate is changing,” he said. “I believe that climate affects everything and that we have to factor climate in our thinking.”

Because of that, Bernhardt said a change is needed in how lands are managed to prevent wildfires.

“I fundamentally think we need to begin to rethink the way we approach this problem, because we’re way in the hole on forest management, and until we pull ourselves out of that hole, we’re going to continue to have very high fuel loads and we’re going to continue to have catastrophic fires. We have to manage it differently,” he said.

But a lack of manpower is an obstacle in accomplishing that, he said. The Interior Department relies mostly on seasonal employees in its firefighting force and they are limited to a certain number of hours per year, Bernhardt said.

In order to still have hours later in the season, firefighters have spent fewer hours earlier in the year toward treatments of land, he said. That includes prescribed burning, thinning and pruning trees or mowing, he said.

“We are really behind on our fuels management treatment, no question about it,” Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget includes $50 million to that end — $28 million for preparedness and $22 million for fuels management.

States are beginning to move to more prevention measures as well, he said.

“In all fairness, the states are recognizing that they need to do more treatments, too. Last year I think we did almost 35% or 37% more treatments than the year before,” he said.

That includes about 11,000 miles of fuel breaks to control fires in portions of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

He said the intervention would continue, which would include adding more people and personnel.

As for working across different federal, state and local agencies, Bernhardt said those firefighting efforts actually work well together, despite political sparring between President Donald Trump and some governors of Western states.

“The actual reality is that our firefighting commands work hand-in-hand with the local government commands, which really are the first line. In fighting fire, there’s very little disconnect, honestly,” he said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.