Although a healthy monsoon has reduced the region's wildfire risks this summer, forest managers have begun prioritizing areas for prescribed burns to thin dense growth that can turn to tinder as the drought persists.
About 15 sites have been proposed for these controlled burns -- several 2,000 acres or larger -- across five ranger districts within the Santa Fe National Forest.
None have been scheduled, and it's possible the burning may not begin until next year, depending on several factors, such as weather and the availability of fire crews who are on alert to help battle wildfires in other states.
And not all the proposed burns will be carried out, a Santa Fe forest spokeswoman said.
"The list of potential projects is much greater than the list of actual projects that get implemented," spokeswoman Julie Anne Overton said.
No particular site is given the top priority, Overton said, adding the agency in general looks at "values" a wildfire could imperil -- such as a neighborhood, camping area, ski resort, a watershed or a stream rich with habitat and wildlife.
Before a controlled fire is set, various conditions must align within a fairly narrow window of opportunity, such as wind, weather, moisture levels and staffing, Overton said.
Not only are local firefighters being diverted to states to battle blazes, but U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore has banned most prescribed burns until the widespread fires are brought under control, according to his August letter.
The priority into the foreseeable future must be to extinguish out-of-control wildland fires that endanger forests and communities, Moore wrote in the letter.
"In short, we are in a national crisis," he wrote. "At times like these, we must anchor to our core values, particularly safety."
So far this year, the U.S. has had 44,461 wildfires that have burned a total of 5.56 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Some area residents have expressed concerns about prescribed burns, saying they generate smoke that is unhealthy to breathe and aggravates respiratory problems.
One forest advocacy group says the purpose of prescribed burns is to protect forests from raging fires that would produce suffocating smoke.
"I like clean air and clean water, and I try to work for everyone," said Eytan Krasilovsky, deputy director of the Forest Stewards Guild. "We're trying to follow the science."
The guild assists state and federal agencies with maintaining forests' health, which in the West involves prescribed burns, Krasilovsky said.
The guild runs a program that lends HEPA filters to homes affected by forest fire smoke, he said.
Overton said she understands people's health concerns.
"We acknowledge that smoke isn't good for any of us," Overton said. "But the smoke from controlled and managed prescribed fire operations is far, far less than smoke from a high-severity wildfire. We've seen the smoke that has come all the way to us from California from those wildfires burning there."
The agency conducts computer modeling to gauge how the fires will burn and where the smoke will drift, with on eye on avoiding population centers, she said. The agency manages prescribed fires in compliance with state air quality regulations, Overton said.
Those who are smoke-sensitive or have heart and lung ailments should take health precautions during a prescribed burn, she said.
One example of a prime resource that faces high fire danger is the Santa Fe watershed, which encompasses the McClure and Nichols reservoirs and supplies a high portion of the area's water.
A 350-acre burn is proposed for the watershed.
"We completely support the prescribed fires that the national forests are conducting," said Anne Bradley, forest program director for Nature Conservancy's New Mexico chapter. "We think it's a great way for our forests to be more healthy, resilient and reduce the risk of damaging wildfires." She noted previous prescribed burns helped keep last year's Medio Fire from spreading to the ski basin.
A wildfire is not only destructive while it burns but leads to erosion, flooding and debris flows on scorched, denuded hillsides, she said. Officials are concerned about what the impacts would be on the municipal watershed, Bradley said.
"They're really concerned about debris coming into the reservoir -- and the debris filling up the reservoir," she said, noting that scenario would reduce water storage.
Krasilovsky said well-managed, low-intensity fire is one of the best ways to enable the forests to better withstand drought and a changing climate.
"It raises the importance of maintaining these efforts so we can be ready as we can be for the hotter, drier future," he said.