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Mexico's approach to fires has support in U.S.

Among the many cultural differences along the U.S.-Mexico border is a widely differing approach to the task of fighting brush fires.

Mexican governments, partially because of tight budgets, do not attempt the quick suppression of brush fires that property owners and politicians in the United States demand.

Mexican officials, backed by some U.S. academics, believe having several medium-size brush fires in one season is preferable to having one large brush fire that can destroy homes and cost lives. Smaller fires burn the fuel that can feed a large fire, they note.

The catastrophic fires in Southern California last week have convinced Mexican officials their approach is correct. In Baja California, only 10 houses burned and two elderly people died of smoke inhalation. One fire near Ensenada ultimately ran out of fuel.

In Baja, fires on the outskirts of cities are allowed to burn themselves out. Ranchers and squatters start fires on their lands to clear brush and get rid of junk and trash.

Such "controlled burns" are done more sparingly in the United States.

"The difficulty is that you have so many houses in the (U.S.) backcountry that you suppress fires to protect houses and you don't get the natural burn," said Richard Carson, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, and an advocate of controlled burns. "The other way you can do it is controlled burns, (but) air pollution authorities are reluctant to have controlled burns."