This year’s spring rains and snow have eased New Mexico’s drought and made it less likely that we’ll see huge, damaging wildfires this season. But in the big picture, fire ecologists say it’s not a matter of if there will be fire, it’s when. They're trying to use flames now to protect watersheds for years to come.
Ponderosa pine trees tower hundreds of feet in the air in the Santa Fe National Forest southwest of Los Alamos. In between them are thickets crowded with mixed-conifer saplings and scrub oaks, lots of dead wood and pine needles.
Just over the hill is where two of the state’s largest wildfires burned. First the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 when hundreds of people lost their homes. Then the Las Conchas fire burned in 2011, completely denuding the landscape of vegetation. The watersheds are still recovering.
“Just to give you some perspective, the first 16 hours of the Las Conchas fire going into the night burned about an acre per second,” said fire ecologist Dennis Carril.
According to Carril, that kind of fire is way out of character in a ponderosa pine habitat. What’s normal is for mellow lightning-caused fires to creep through these stands every decade or so, with flames just a few feet high burning up the grasses and little trees and recycling nutrients back into the soil. But with the advent of the Forest Service at the turn of the 19th century and its mission to put out wildfires, it’s as though no one has taken out the forest’s recycling in more than 100 years.
“Smoky the Bear is about as popular as Santa Claus as far as a well-known name and icon across the world,” Carril said. “The idea that we need to put out all fires, it took us decades to pull out of this suppression.”
Now, whenever possible the forest service tries to manage wild fires and let them burn, using them to benefit the forest’s health. As part of the Southwest Jemez Landscape Restoration Project, crews are thinning hundreds of thousands of acres. They use prescribed fire burns but it's been a little too wet for that, so they've gone in with chainsaws.
Jeremy Marshall is the project's coordinator for the forest service. About a dozen dudes wearing hard hats and armed with freshly oiled blades cut down trees that will eventually be dragged into a pile and burned when the conditions are right.
“In here there's probably 60 trees per acre, which is what we are really striving for,” Marshall explained. “If you look across at that dog hair thicket, there's probably upwards of 1,000 trees per acre.”
Marshall said if an unplanned blaze really got going in here, it could destroy homes that butt up against the forest. Afterward, flooding and debris could pollute water that flows into the Rio Grande, which is an important source of drinking water.
“It's the obvious place to go,” Marshall said. "It's the place where treatment is urgent.”
Marshall said when he thinks about how much of New Mexico’s forests need treatment, it can be overwhelming, but taking no action is just passing the buck to future generations.
“In the Forest Service, we work on things that are really beyond our lives or careers,” Marshall said. “These forests are on scales way beyond that. Hundreds of years, thousands of years. So we're stewards of it, but only for a glimpse, if you will.”
The Forest Service has to put out human-caused fires, even if letting them burn would be the best thing. So for the rest of us, as stewards, we have to stay on our toes this summer and focus on not starting fires.
Meteorologist Chuck Maxwell has been pouring over drought conditions and weather patterns, putting together the outlook for fire managers across the Southwest. He said with all the rains, there’s a lot of grass.
“Fine fuels are out there,” Maxwell said. “They’re just being modulated by these moisture hits, but it’s out there, waiting to be cured and waiting to be available for fire.”
The driest part of the year, Maxwell warned, may come in August when lightning will likely spark fire on the landscape naturally. Then, if conditions are right, managers may allow the fire to do its job in restoring the health of the forest.