This month, I started working on a new project with New Mexico in Focus. Each month, we’ll explore a different issue on “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future.” The first show aired last night on New Mexico PBS/KNME-TV and was loosely based around reporting I had done earlier this year in partnership with NM Political Report and the Santa Fe Reporter. Related story: The Heart of Darkness
In the first episode of “Our Land,” we visited with Jeremy Sweat, the Chief of Resource Management at Bandelier National Monument and Collin Haffey, a resource ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey to learn about how forests are, and are not, recovering six years after Las Conchas Fire burned 156,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains. You can watch the full video of the segment below. Haffey brought the crew out to a 30,000 acre area where Las Conchas burned so intensely that in many places, there are essentially no living trees left, and no seed sources for regeneration.
On the edge of the Valle Grande in northern New Mexico stands a grove of towering ponderosa pines. The trees, many of them between 250 and 400 years old, comprise what’s called the History Grove, and they offer a snapshot into what the forests of the Jemez Mountains looked like centuries ago—before widespread grazing in the late 19th century and decades of fire suppression by the federal government. During a recent trip there, I was reminded of what goes into protecting and maintaining our forests and landscapes. Land management, as it’s called, is made of up of meetings and programs, line-item budgets and public comment periods. And sometimes, expensive lawsuits and bitter battles.
As of this morning, the 1,400-acre Cajete Fire in the Jemez Mountains was 80 percent contained, and all of the evacuees have been allowed to return home. The wildfire ignited after visitors to the Santa Fe National Forest abandoned a campfire about a mile northeast of the community of Sierra de los Pinos. The site remains under investigation. The Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest has experienced a rash of abandoned and unattended campfires so far this spring. And even with a wildfire burning through the forest—and more than 400 people fighting it—fire officials still found three more abandoned campfires during their weekend patrols.
According to the Santa Fe National Forest, a wildfire ignited in the Jemez Ranger District Thursday. Smoke was first reported at 10:47 a.m.
The fire is dubbed the El Cajete Fire. As of 1 p.m., the fire is estimated to be 100 acres in size and spreading. Engines, air tankers, a helicopter and ground crews are working to control the fire. Additional teams of fire fighters are expected to arrive tonight and tomorrow.
After a snowy winter and a relatively wet spring, some of New Mexico’s forests are starting to dry out. And quickly. During their Wednesday morning fire call, officials with the Santa Fe National Forest heard the bad news: The National Weather Service forecast calls for increasingly hot temperatures with the possibility for thunderstorms on Sunday and Monday. After that, conditions will be hot and dry for the foreseeable future. “Leadership is looking at the possibility of fire restrictions,” said Julie Anne Overton, acting public affairs officer at the Santa Fe National Forest.
As we wrote earlier today, fire protection officers were busy keeping an eye on New Mexico’s national forests over the three-day weekend. Related story: Fire protection officers strain to keep up with holiday crowds
This morning, the numbers came in: In the Jemez District of the Santa Fe National Forest, officers found 19 abandoned campfires. They found 13 on Monday alone. That brings the total this year to 49. Across the entire Santa Fe National Forest, officers found 41 abandoned or unattended campfires over Memorial Day weekend.
While thousands of people poured into the mountains to enjoy the three-day weekend, federal employees hustled around the forests, trying to keep visitors safe, protect special areas and prevent wildfires. It’s not an easy job. Like many public lands, national forests in New Mexico and across the country have experienced a jump in visitors in recent years. Fire Protection Officer Ron Gallegos has worked full-time for the U.S Forest Service for 37 years. Just shy of 60 years old, he grew up spending time in the area where he now works, the Jemez District of the Santa Fe National Forest, and fishing the Rio Cebolla.
First there’s a spark, and then the fire. We all stare at the sky, smell the smoke. After the trees and brush and roots are gone, floods roar through arroyos and down hillsides. Weeds invade as soon as the ground has cooled. Often, the long-term changes aren’t that obvious, especially when compared with flames and floods.
Six years ago this June, an enormous cloud above the Jemez Mountains was visible across northern New Mexico to south of Albuquerque. Punching into the clear, blue sky, it looked like a thundercloud, or even a mushroom cloud. That day, heat from a wildfire was rising so quickly that the winds couldn’t push it away, forming a pyrocumulous cloud. By the time it was extinguished, Las Conchas Fire had burned 156,000 acres. “The first day, I remember I was in Washington D.C., and got the report it was 40 acres in size,” said Jorge Silva-Bañuelos, who is now superintendent of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
As political winds blow and funding for research ebbs and flows, communities still have to prepare for wildfires. Like the kind of devastating fires New Mexicans have seen erupt in recent years: Las Conchas in the Jemez Mountains in 2011, the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso in 2012 and that same summer, the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in the Gila National Forest. By studying fire history, scientists can help land managers protect vulnerable areas today—before catastrophic fires occur and threaten communities or watersheds. One useful tool is tree ring data. Each year they grow, trees add rings.