The summer season is drawing to a close and as we reflect upon the months that defined it, many of us will long remember it for the destruction resulting from our State's historic forest fires. This season, New Mexico's Little Bear and Whitewater-Baldy fires claimed nearly a half-million acres, thousands of acres of wildlife habitat and nearly 300 homes and businesses.
This weekend, as we stop to honor those in our community who labor, I ask you to join me in singling out the brave men and women who are first responders. We must always remember and thank these people who put their lives on the line keeping us safe. Without their selfless actions, the forest fires in our local communities could have caused even greater damage and been deadly. But thanks to them, we in New Mexico did not lose one human life. Tragically, our friends in others states facing the same threats weren't so lucky. Anne Veseth, a wildland firefighter in Idaho was killed in the line of duty. An elderly couple was killed in Colorado's Waldo Canyon Fire and another person killed in that states High Park fire. Four members of the North Carolina Air National Guard were killed in an air tanker crash in South Dakota while fighting a forest fire. God bless all their souls and their families.
I give our affected communities high praise for cleaning up and moving forward. They are looking ahead and providing their local residents with the confidence that they are not alone in this process. Just this week, the City of Alamogordo, Lincoln County and the Village of Ruidoso received word that FEMA declared them a disaster area, which now allows federal financial assistance with clean up of environmentally damaged Bonito Lake. This lake provides drinking water to these residents and it is certainly good news and I applaud this federal response.
In support of the public's personal safety, including that of our first responders, I continue to question why these fires were not extinguished before strong winds caused them to burn out of control. My office is working with retired Forest Service personnel to get answers to this important question.
As I have stated previously, my concerns are with Washington policies and not with our brave firefighters. Decades long mismanagement of our federal lands has allowed the fuels to build into what we see today and explode into the raging blazes that we witnessed this summer.
Progress into changing these long established failed policies has been made. Just recently, on August 7th, Joe Walsh, Washington spokesman for the US Forest Service, stated that the agency would "more aggressively extinguish small fires before they become larger ones." (Los Angeles Times) This is the correct mindset that Americans need.
In another shift, on August 16th, Tom Harbor, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the US Forest Service, that it was changing policy and would begin allowing helicopters to attack wildfires at night in southern California. (Washington Post)
However, here in New Mexico, in the August 8th issue of the Ruidoso News, the Chief Ranger of the Lincoln National Forest's Smokey Bear Ranger District said he "would do nothing different." It is extremely concerning to hear that locally, the Forest Service demonstrates no concern with existing policies. Policies that very likely allowed for the destruction of our local communities, impacting families, businesses, and public health.
It is my intention to see that the Forest Service reevaluates its policies and implements basic changes that can better improve prevention of these large out of control fires in the future. Nothing sweeping. Nothing radical. Just commonsense, such as, thinning areas that are overgrown, establishing safety zones around at-risk communities and aggressively/immediately putting out fires in these areas. We all, especially our federal land managers, must be open-minded to make our rural and urban areas safe.