August 29, 2022

The age of consequence: Wildfires in New Mexico

Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Hermit’s Peak, framed by the burnt trees above the village of Gallinas.

At 4:15 p.m. on April 6, a team of wildland firefighters stood on alert near a rocky ridge just northwest of Las Vegas. The spot in the valley was breathtaking, full of ponderosa pine and jagged stone outcroppings. Hermit’s Peak — a dramatic craggy mountain crest — loomed overhead. 

The crew was standing guard over a prescribed fire when suddenly an order came over the radio, directing them to abandon their post and head downslope where embers had jumped outside the containment lines. In the minutes that followed, the winds shifted, the flames spread and all the fire engines ran out of water. At 4:50 p.m., U.S. Forest Service officials declared that the prescribed burn had become a wildfire.

This story was written by, and first appeared at, Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

In future retellings of New Mexico’s 2022 wildfire season, many will distill the story to this moment, the instant that the Forest Service lost control of the Hermit’s Peak Fire, which would later combine with yet another escaped prescribed fire to become the largest in state history. 

But while the Forest Service lit the proverbial match on Hermit’s Peak, the fire’s true origins trace back to thousands of missteps over the centuries. From overgrazing and logging in the late 1800s to fire suppression in the decades since and inaction on climate change today, America’s institutions have contributed to the deterioration of forests across the West. 

In New Mexico today, forests remain subject to political inaction and economic whims. The state has become a major contributor to climate change, thanks to a booming oil and gas industry, located principally in New Mexico’s portion of the Permian Basin, the highest greenhouse-gas producing oil region in the country. The state reaped more than $1.7 billion in oil and gas revenue in the first four months of 2022 alone. Revenue like this comes with a price: a per capita greenhouse gas production of about 70 percent more than the national average. And these record windfalls come at a time of increasingly severe wildfires, mass tree die-offs and the incineration of more than 1,000 structures, including hundreds of homes in the state this year.

“The bill has come due,” said Craig Allen, a leading researcher and ecology professor at the University of New Mexico. “We are now in the age of consequence.”

As bad as the wildfire season was this year, things are only projected to get worse. Under the status quo, scientists expect large swaths of New Mexico’s forests to die off in the next several decades, as drought and fire convert vast groves of ponderosa pine into shrubland, watersheds dwindle and wildland communities — many of which date back centuries — are  consumed by fire.

Back in April, when another major blaze, the McBride Fire, destroyed 207 homes and killed two people in Ruidoso, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham visited the ravaged city and addressed residents. Her message contained a warning that this was just the beginning. 

“For the first time in a long time, New Mexico looks like what we’ve seen play out on the West Coast,” she said. “And though I wish I could tell every New Mexican we’re gonna prevent every fire, that’s not true. We are going to do everything we can to keep people safe. This is going to happen all around the state and we have to be prepared.”

But while the projections are bleak, they aren’t preordained. Ecologists and government officials say interventions may stave off the worst. The only question is whether the government, the business sector and private landowners will act swiftly to protect what remains. 

“We’re not going to be able to save all the forests from catastrophic fire, and unfortunately, we’re going to lose more homes,” said Zander Evans, executive director of Forest Stewards Guild, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Fe. “But even saving some is a worthwhile goal, and we know how to do that.”

A ‘man-made disaster’

On April 22, eight large wildfires were burning across New Mexico, their flames fanned by winds of up to 80 mph. That day, the Hermit’s Peak Fire exploded, moving north and colliding with the Calf Canyon Fire — which days earlier had emerged from smoldering embers left over from yet another Forest Service prescribed burn, one that was set back in January. And to the west, in yet another section of the Santa Fe National Forest, the winds fostered the growth of a newly detonated blaze near Los Alamos, soon to become the Cerro Pelado fire.

That night, from his home about three miles from where the Cerro Pelado fire started, Tom Swetnam sat on his deck watching a rolling column of flames barrel across the forest. Swetnam, a dendrochronologist — a scientist who studies tree rings — was no casual observer. Now retired, he’d spent decades as a researcher at the University of Arizona, piecing together the history of fire in the Jemez Mountains. While watching the flames break over the tree canopies and blacken the trunks, Swetnam realized this fire was a man-made disaster, unlike any he had studied from the past.

Historically speaking, fire in New Mexico hasn’t always killed pine forests. Swetnam’s studies of tree rings have found that fires typically burned in the Jemez about once every decade, dating back to the 14th century. But unlike the wall of flames he now watched from his deck, those centuries-old fires usually remained beneath the canopy. 

“We are talking about low-severity, low-intensity fires, kind of like a wave of flame moving through the understory of these forests,” Swetnam said. 

These blazes yielded ecological benefits — releasing nutrients in the soil, clearing out small trees and reducing competition among other plants for water and sunlight. In the old forests, ponderosa pines grew larger and hardier than they do today, adapting to survive small fires and tell the stories of those events through their tree rings centuries later. 

That all began to change in the 1870s with the advent of the railroad, Swetnam said. The rails connected the Southwest to the national economy and triggered a boom in both sheep farming and logging. Herds of sheep consumed the grass that once fueled beneficial, low-intensity fires; logging removed the large fire-tolerant trees, reshaping the ecology of Western forests. And as the woodlands became commodified, white settlers began to see wildfires as major threats to assets like timber and forage rather than as an ecological necessity for a healthy forest. 

This changing perspective came to a head in 1910, after a summer of devastating fires in Idaho, Montana and Washington, collectively known as the “Big Blowup.” Back in Washington D.C., politicians alarmed by the fire’s destruction delivered new authority and funding to the fledgling Forest Service to build up fire suppression efforts. The agency quickly created a workforce of firefighters and built a whole new infrastructure — roads, towers, alert systems — to enable crews to reach fires and quash them quickly. In the decades that followed, groves of young trees that would otherwise have been thinned by frequent small fires proliferated. The forests grew from wide, sun-filled woodlands into the densely packed stands of trees we know today.

The consequences came to roost decades later, in the late 1980s, when wildfires came roaring back —  magnified now by sparks from passing cars, campfires and electric power lines.  

For New Mexico, the reckoning came in May 2000, when the National Park Service lit a prescribed fire in Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos. Driven by high winds and bone-dry forests, the Cerro Grande fire, as it became known, was then the largest and most destructive in state history. That same summer, wildfires erupted across the entire country, burning some 7 million acres and causing more than $1 billion in damage. It was the worst fire season since 1910, when the Forest Service began its campaign to eliminate fire from the forests. And it was seen as a clarion call for the government and foresters to restore balance to the nation’s woodlands. 

Additional disasters drove the point home: By 2002, in the grips of a punishing drought, three western states — California, Colorado, Arizona —  witnessed their largest wildfires on record. Twenty-one firefighters died.

Overwhelming needs, underfunded efforts

The recurring devastation helped push the Healthy Forests Restoration Act through Congress in 2003. The bill created guidelines and fire-reduction incentives for at-risk areas; it also instructed communities to create strategies to deal with wildfire through Community Wildfire Protection Plans. These CWPPs are designed to coordinate emergency responses, identify forest resilience projects and expand prescribed burning and forest thinning programs — a labor-intensive process that is admittedly cumbersome for communities to tackle without help. 

In the backdrop, the federal government conducted a review of the destructive Cerro Grande fire, analyzing what went wrong with the prescribed burn. Among the findings was this shocking detail: The agencies responsible for the fire lacked the expertise to authorize the burn. This revelation helped spur institutional research into fire behavior and ecology. In 2001, the Los Alamos National Laboratory — which suffered direct damage from the Cerro Grande fire — introduced efforts to model wildland fires. Across the country, there was broad consensus that forests needed regular thinning and preventive maintenance to avoid catastrophic fires.

Yet funding and critical resources stagnated. By 2012, foresters estimated that less than 10 percent of U.S. communities at risk for wildfire had created a CWPP. At the same time, chronic understaffing and underfunding within forestry agencies, along with logistical issues, limited the amount of thinning and prescribed burning being done. 

New Mexico’s forests were particularly neglected, despite the fact that some of the largest, most destructive fires on record have occurred in this state.  The Forest Service employs only seven silviculturists — forest scientists — along with six trainees to oversee the 7.9 million acres of land the agency manages in the state. These employees are the only ones authorized to order the prescriptions for thinning projects on agency land statewide. 

In addition, state and local wildfire planning has not scaled up over the years. Each community at risk of wildfire should have its own CWPP to address a wide array of details, including things like evacuation routes and priority thinning areas, according to the state Forestry Division. But while there are 847 at-risk communities in New Mexico, the state only has 69 CWPPs on file. Most of these plans are broad, encompassing entire counties, rather than specific communities, as preferred. 

And though New Mexico has the fifth most forested land of any state, it has one of the least-funded and least-staffed state Forestry Divisions in the country, with 72 full-time staff members. By comparison, Colorado and Georgia, which have comparable amounts of forest, have 120 and 191 full-time staff, respectively.

Laura McCarthy, New Mexico’s state forester, helped oversee the creation of yet another key part of forest management: the state’s Forest Action Plan in 2020. The plan — a federally mandated management document —  says that nearly 5 million acres need treatment — thinning, prescribed burns or weed management — on a rotating cycle to create resilience to fire. That works out to 300,000 acres a year, a target that the state isn’t even close to reaching.  

“It’s a lifetime of work,” McCarthy said. “We need to right-size our organization.”

New Mexico’s forest future

Today, fires that used to be considered unprecedented are considered the norm. Rising temperatures have created a domino effect, beginning with the fact that hot air holds more moisture than cold. As it pulls water from soil and trees, the heat stresses the trees, stunting their growth and leaving them vulnerable to disease, predators and death. 

Insects like bark beetles love the warmer weather, which allows them to survive and reproduce for longer periods. During hot summers, they target weak, drought-stressed trees, killing them in enormous numbers. Hot air keeps pulling water from their lifeless husks and from live trees as well until they reach moisture contents similar to kiln-dried lumber. It is the perfect fuel for fire. 

“The intensity has changed so much,” said James Biggs, a former wildland firefighter who now teaches fire ecology at New Mexico Highlands University. “You’re seeing a lot more structures burning down and it becomes harder and harder to fight these high-intensity fires.”

While frequent, low-intensity fires once played a rejuvenating role on forests, they now have the opposite effect. Species like ponderosa pine have adapted to drop their seeds after wildfires, but if the fire is too severe, trees aren’t always able to reestablish, studies show. Left unchecked, wildfires are expected to wipe out many of New Mexico’s pine forests, slowly converting them to open shrubland. 

“You’re not gonna get trees reestablishing for hundreds of years, if ever, especially as the climate continues to warm,” Swetnam said. “It’s just an inhospitable landscape for trees.”

There is a glimmer of hope that more forest resilience work is on the way — work that can slow the downward spiral. Earlier this year, the Forest Service named the “Enchanted Circle,” a 1.5 million acre chunk of the Carson National Forest in Taos, Colfax and Mora Counties, as a priority landscape for wildfire resilience work; the agency designated $11.3 million over the next two years for work in that region. Both the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act — signed into law Aug. 16 — also provide infusions of cash into the nation’s forests, with a combined total of about $10 billion earmarked for forestry and wildfire risk reduction. These include grant programs to help at-risk states, communities and private landowners. The New Mexico Forestry Division has already laid plans to use some of that money to help communities develop CWPPs and better plans for fire prevention.

The potential for what this type of work could accomplish was on display back in April as Swetnam watched the Cerro Pelado fire sweep north toward Sierra de los Pinos, a neighborhood of about 200 houses. The community had already evacuated in preparation for the worst and, watching the flames, Swetnam thought it would surely come. 

But as the fire approached the outskirts of Sierra de los Pinos, it reached a patch of forest that had recently been thinned. Swetnam watched in surprise as the smoke faded from black to gray, then white, and flames  dropped from the treetops to the ground before moving east toward thicker fuels.

It’s now widely believed that forest thinning saved Sierra de los Pinos from ruin. According to Swetnam, what he saw from his deck is one of the best examples of what needs to be done to stop wildfires from consuming the entirety of New Mexico’s forests. 

“Most of us understand that you can mitigate high-severity fire by fuel treatments,” Swetnam said. “But you know, it’s very hard. It’s going to take decades.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.