- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - There’s nothing secret about what’s planned for Area 74 - a swath of forested land along the Continental Divide in southern New Mexico that needs attention.

After years of planning, crews with the Gila National Forest are making final preparations to walk the 16-mile perimeter, drip torches in hand, to set ablaze nearly 16 square miles as part of a $375 million nationwide campaign by the U.S. Forest Service to clean up overgrown forests and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires as things heat up and dry out.

The agency plans to treat close to 2 million acres with fire, mechanical thinning and other means this year, a steady goal for the last few years but still a drop in the bucket when considering the ever expanding “red zone” - where communities and homes intersect with wild lands.

The agency estimates there are more than 44 million homes in 70,000 rural communities that are at risk of wildfires.

Frankie Romero, the fire use and fuels management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, likened the battle to chess.

“We know that we can’t treat every acre that we have out there. So what our managers are doing is trying to figure out where to position their next treatment to give themselves the best advantage in the next upcoming fire season,” he said from his office in Boise, Idaho.

That’s what happened in 2014 when a fire broke out in Oak Creek Canyon in northern Arizona and charred 33 square miles. Had crews not done previous work to clear out hazardous fuels and build a firebreak along a key ridge, the flames could have spread into the mountain community of Flagstaff.

The Forest Service’s Southwest region was among the most successful in 2015, clearing nearly a quarter of a million acres by using fire and other techniques. That’s 140 percent more than the region’s initial target.

In all, the agency conducted prescribed fires on 1.1 million acres last year.

State foresters, wildlife managers and environmental groups are pleading with Congress to approve more funding - $479 million - to boost the work in 2017. That’s $100 million more than the agency has requested.

The coalition is also calling for language that would encourage federal land managers to coordinate their projects with state efforts. Some of that is already happening with projects in Arizona and New Mexico, officials said.

On the Gila, there’s a long history of using fire. More than 375 square miles have been treated with a combination of prescribed fires and wildfires managed for beneficial uses just in the last decade.

Area 74 is a high priority and the forest’s biggest project this year.

“Just from the standpoint of putting fire on the landscape and treating our natural resources, things couldn’t be lined up better,” Gila fire management officer Gabe Holguin said. “We’re not in the drought conditions we’ve seen over the last five years so we have opportunities to do some real good out there.”

It’ll take a week to burn through 10,000 acres. Crews are waiting for a favorable window in the weather.

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