ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As firefighters battle blazes in New Mexico and Colorado that have forced evacuations and destroyed hundreds of structures, the U.S. Forest Service chief is renewing his call to restore forests to a more natural state, where fire was a part of the landscape.
Experts say a combination of decades of vigorous fire suppression and the waning of the timber industry over environmental concerns has left many forests a tangled, overgrown mess, subject to the kind of superfires that are now regularly consuming hundreds of homes and millions of acres.
The Forest Service is on a mission to set the clock back to zero and the urgency couldn't be greater, Tom Tidwell said. The plan calls for accelerating restoration programs - everything from prescribed fire and mechanical thinning - by 20 percent each year in key areas that are facing the greatest danger of a catastrophic fire.
This year's target: 4 million acres. The budget: About $1 billion.
"We need to understand the conditions we're facing today," Mr. Tidwell said. "They're different than what we used to deal with. We're seeing erratic fire behavior, more erratic weather."
With more natural fires, experts contend the forest has a better chance of recovering. Severe fires tend to sterilize the soil, destroy any banks of seeds stored in the ground and leave mountainsides primed for erosion.
In southern New Mexico, a lightning-sparked fire raced across more than 37,000 acres in recent days, damaging or destroying at least 224 homes and other structures in the mountains outside of the resort community of Ruidoso.
Officials say the Little Bear fire, which has scorched 58 square miles in the Sierra Blanca range, has been 40 percent contained and firefighters will continue building lines to contain the fire Thursday. But they note that sunny, dry weather will result in more active fire behavior and an increase in visible smoke.
The accelerated restoration effort is focused on several landscape-scale projects, the largest of which is a 20-year plan that calls for restoring 2.4 million acres across four forests in northern Arizona. The Forest Service recently awarded a contract to start thinning the first 300,000 acres.
A similar project is planned in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, where a historic fire ripped through 244 square miles and threatened one of the national's premier nuclear laboratories just last summer.
Another concern is the 8.6 million acres of standing trees killed by beetle infestations. Restoration projects from Oregon and South Dakota to Colorado are aimed at tackling that problem. One of those, the White River National Forest collaborative project, is expected to result in more than 190,000 tons of biomass through thinning.
Forest officials estimate the cost of fire suppression in some of the areas targeted for restoration could be reduced by up to 50 percent because of the work.
President Obama signed a bill this week hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation's rundown aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24 million.
In all, eight workhorse C-130s stand ready to fight destructive wildfires around the country - but all are grounded due to rules governing the use of the nation's aerial firefighting resources. The new purchases, meanwhile, won't help firefighters battling destructive blazes in Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere for weeks, if not months.
Mr. Obama signed the bill Wednesday at the urging of Colorado's congressional delegation, which was quick to praise the move.