ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – 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 super-fires that are now regularly consuming hundreds of homes and millions of acres.
As firefighters continue to battle massive blazes in New Mexico and Colorado, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is renewing his call to restore forests to a more natural state, in which fire was a part of the landscape and in many instances was far less destructive.
The Forest Service is on a mission to set the clock back to zero and the urgency couldn't be greater, 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," Tidwell told The Associated Press in an interview. "They're different than what we used to deal with. We're seeing erratic fire behavior, more erratic weather."
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. Hundreds of residents remained out of their homes Wednesday.
The Little Bear blaze has scorched 58 square miles in the Sierra Blanca range and containment stood at 40 percent after crews used a two-day break in the hot, windy weather to build miles of fire lines and conduct burnout operations.
To the north, smoke from a fire burning in Colorado was blowing into southeastern Wyoming and smudging the skies above Cheyenne on Wednesday. That blaze, about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, has burned 73 square miles, destroyed more than 100 structures and forced hundreds of people from their homes. The blaze was 10 percent contained late Wednesday.
More than 1,000 firefighters labored to build containment lines as air tankers and helicopters focused on protecting buildings from the High Park fire.
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.
The directive doesn't stop at the landscape level, however. Each forest in the Southwest is part of a pilot project that pools regular watershed and wildlife program funds for restoration. Regional forester Corbin Newman said that amounts to millions of dollars.
In an era of tight budgets and taxed resources, forest officials acknowledged that restoration will be a challenge. They said part of the solution is setting priorities and forming more partnerships with states, municipalities and even water utilities given the impacts catastrophic fires can have on watersheds. Some 66 million Americans rely on drinking water that flows from the nation's forests.
Still, there are millions of acres — wilderness and roadless, rugged areas — where mechanical thinning won't be an option. In those areas, fire will have to take its natural course.
"Everybody has to keep in mind that fire will play a huge significant role in our landscape for the rest of time," Newman said. "Sometimes people think through either restoration or suppression we can just make fires go away. We have to remind folks we're just trying put fire back into its natural processes and cycles as opposed to what we're seeing in today's world."
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.
Newman and other forest officials lamented that educating people about the complexity of restoring forests and fire's natural role will take something more than Smokey Bear, the black bear that became the nation's most successful symbol of fire prevention in the 1940s.
Tidwell said campaigns are under way at the federal and state level to address the benefits of restoration, particularly prescribed fire under the right conditions.
"We're going to have trade-offs of either dealing with smoke at different times of the year or dealing with what we're dealing with now," he said, pointing to the fires burning across the country.
Across the West:
— Utah: Two wildfires blackened 4,000 acres in Fishlake National Forest in southern Utah. Meanwhile, a preliminary report found an air tanker that wrecked June 3 while fighting a wildfire in southern Utah veered off its flight path while following a lead plane moments before crashing into mountainous terrain. Both pilots in the tanker died; they were from Boise, Idaho. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday it's still investigating the cause of the crash.
— Wyoming: Investigators determined a 2,800-acre fire burning in Guernsey State Park was human-caused. It is 95 percent contained, while a 13-square-mile fire in Medicine Bow National Forest is fully contained. The risk of new fires is high in much of the state because of dry air and expected strong winds.
— Arizona: A 2,600-acre wildfire in the Tonto National Forest northwest of Phoenix is 40 percent contained. It's not threatening any buildings. Crews fully contained a wildfire that had forced the evacuation of the historic mining town of Crown King. Firefighters were also maintaining a perimeter around a 500-acre forest fire outside Grand Canyon National Park. The blaze about 11 miles southeast of Grand Canyon Village isn't expected to deter visitors to the park.
Associated Press writers Bob Moen, Ben Neary and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.