In March of 2020, when the Covid outbreak was first getting underway, the US Forest Service published a news release that they were suspending prescribed burns in order to protect area residents from the adverse health impacts of inhaling smoke. According to the Center for Disease Control, “Wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect you immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections, including SAR-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”
In September of 2020, by which time New Mexicans were contracting approximately 5-10 times the number of cases of Covid-19 per day than they they had been at the time of the March suspension of prescribed burning, the Forest Service announced that they were taking a “carefully considered look” at burning again. A number of local area residents sent emails requesting that burning not be done in order to protect public health during the pandemic. The Forest Service went ahead with burns in the fall anyway.
On January 7, 2021, with Covid at least four times more prevalent in New Mexico than it had been at the time of the September announcement, the Forest Service announced imminent pile burning in Pacheco Canyon. By January 12, the the air in the Santa Fe area was full of smoke from these burns. The smoke was intense enough that it was not even always possible to keep it from coming into houses with windows shut tight.
At no time has the Forest Service explained why they have apparently concluded that the level of public health risk from burning during the pandemic is now acceptable, even though cases of Covid in New Mexico have soared.
For more information on the health effects of prescribed burn smoke, please read Prescribed burn smoke and our health.
The Forest Advocate
Santa Fe, New Mexico