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Biden to be briefed on wildfires in New Mexico


President Biden stops in New Mexico today for a briefing on the state's unprecedented fire season, which includes its largest-ever fire. As Alice Fordham from member station KUNM reports, that fire raises hard policy questions about how forests should be managed.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The largest fire ever recorded in New Mexico burned swaths of the mountains around the town of Mora. The blaze has moved west now, and life is coming back. But in this rural area, that life isn't the same.

JASON GRIEGO: It's pretty much destroyed the way of life for a lot of people, from the timber industry to the cattle industry to the small homestead.

FORDHAM: Jason Griego (ph) comes from a small ranching family.

GRIEGO: We have 40 head of cattle. My dad lost probably about 110 acres of high-elevation land.

FORDHAM: In summer, they run the cattle up to the high ground so they can grow alfalfa for hay at the lower elevation - not this year.

GRIEGO: There's no grass up in the highlands anymore 'cause they completely moonscaped it. They torched it.

FORDHAM: Burned patches cover the forested mountains for miles around. The fire destroyed homes, burned parts of the forest used for logging, and he's clear who he blames.

GRIEGO: The people in this area are disgusted with the U.S. Forest Service.

FORDHAM: The fire, still only two-thirds contained here, began as two planned burns by the Forest Service, which got out of control. Those are designed to burn parts of forests so there's less fuel and bigger fires don't break out. But residents and state politicians say during a windy, dry spring, a planned burn was a bad idea and that the federal government should pay for the considerable damage. Foremost among those voices is Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, whom I run into out and about in Mora.

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: I expect that the feds are going to cover this liability to the highest degree, but I know it won't be everything, and it won't be timely.

FORDHAM: For instance, although summer rains are forecast in a couple of weeks, the Forest Service hasn't put in place barriers against flooding, which can be catastrophic on burned land. Forest Service officials say there are layers of approval that need to happen first. Lujan Grisham says the state is going to step in now.

LUJAN GRISHAM: The state's going to frontload. I don't have time to wait for the feds.

FORDHAM: And when the president visits, she'll speak to him about eventually being reimbursed.

LUJAN GRISHAM: But he's going to get an in-person briefing about that's my expectation. And I have to say, they are not balking. I mean, they put in writing this is their liability. They're clear that a lot of other stuff's got to happen. But it is a giant government system with significant flaws.

FORDHAM: Last month, the Forest Service banned controlled burns nationwide for 90 days, citing extreme wildfire conditions in the field.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Mora, N.M.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.