Prescribed burns continued at height of pandemic

by The Forest Advocate       Jan 13, 2021, updated Mar 6, 2022
Smoke from Pacheco Canyon pile burns, Jan 12, 2021. Photo: Satya Kirsch

In March of 2020, when the Covid outbreak was first getting underway, the Santa Fe National Forest published a news release that they were suspending prescribed burns in order to protect area residents from the adverse health impacts of inhaling smoke compounding the risks from Covid. The news release stated:

The SFNF’s first priority is to protect the health and safety of employees and members of the public by following COVID-19 guidance from federal, state and local authorities.

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 burning, the Santa Fe National Forest 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, but burns proceeded in the fall of 2020 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 Santa Fe National Forest announced imminent pile burning in Pacheco Canyon. By January 12, the air in areas of Santa Fe was thick with burn smoke; some could not prevent the smoke from entering their homes and making them ill.  

Burning continued over the following year, even as the pace of Covid accelerated in the fall of 2021. In January of 2022, with Covid infecting record numbers of people in New Mexico and nationwide, the Santa Fe National Forest announced five new burns totaling over 1,500 acres. Soon some Santa Fe neighborhoods again filled with smoke from burning in Pacheco Canyon, and again the Santa Fe National Forest received complaints of health problems from the burning. As of January 16, 2022, the Santa Fe National Forest had taken no steps to limit burning despite receiving more public pleas on the subject, including numerous appeals in comments on the September 2021 draft environmental assessment for the Santa Fe Mountains Project.  

At no time has the Santa Fe National Forest explained why they concluded that the level of public health risk from burning during the pandemic became acceptable to them after their cessation of burning in March 2020.  

For more information on the health effects of prescribed burn smoke, please read Prescribed burn smoke and our health.

Piles of cut trees ready to burn in Black Canyon. Photo: Dee Blanco

The Forest Advocate
Santa Fe, New Mexico