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Controlled burns conducted by trained experts help keep forests healthy and lower the risk of wildfires. Laura McCarthy, senior policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy, worked with the Santa Fe water utility to create a water fund that uses money from residents to pay for ongoing restoration such as forest thinning and prescribed burns.

More than a decade ago, water managers in the West took note of the devastation wreaked by the Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico. The fire burned for two weeks, destroyed homes, cut off the Los Alamos’ city water supply and caused $17 million in damage to the county’s water utility system. Like many mega-fires, it was caused by perilous fuel loads and poor forest health due to decades of fire suppression.

A study of the Santa Fe National Forest around the city’s two main reservoirs found that there had not been a natural fire there in almost 100 years. Historically, the frequency of natural fires was roughly every seven years. Without natural fires to periodically remove saplings, the ponderosa pine forest was severely overgrown. This risk spurred the city and the U.S. Forest Service to embark on a 10-year forest-thinning project. Now, the water fund will help prevent a catastrophic fire from happening by helping the Forest Service to conduct prescribed burns to maintain natural tree density.

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