There’s a stretch of land in the Jemez Mountains that has been empty for decades. It’s a burn scar from a fire that burned in the 1950s.
The vegetation is still recovering from that fire. Cynthia Naha, a member of the Hopi tribe who works for Santo Domingo Pueblo, said she saw some trees returning to the area when she visited during a recent trip.
“We’re starting to see some of that timber come back,” Naha told NM Political Report. “Seventy years and you see that regeneration there.”
The 1950 burn scar, along with burn scars left by more recent catastrophic fires in the area, including the Cerro Grande fire of 2001 and the Las Conchas fire of 2011, serve as a historical record carved into the landscape, documenting the legacy of fire suppression that governed forest management for most of the 20th century.
As the climate warms and aridification spreads across much of the west, it’s clear the threat of catastrophic fires isn’t going away—in fact, it’s getting worse. But forest managers are increasingly turning to landscape-scale management, and large prescribed burns, as one tool to keep forests healthy and reduce the risk of a megafire.
“At some level we have a choice,” said Zander Evans, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Stewards Guild.
The U.S. Forest Service is in the middle of a major update to forest management plans. Four National Forests in New Mexico — the Santa Fe, Carson, Cibola and Gila national forests — are now in various stages of the multi-year process to update management plans from the 1980s.
The Forest Service has the difficult task of balancing its management plan for a host of diverse uses, ranging from resource management, recreational use, wildlife conservation and wildfire management. There has been a recent push by conservation groups to protect wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity by designating more portions of the National Forest as wilderness. But the discussion on how best to protect habitat has shone a light on another important component of forest management — one that’s a bit more controversial among residents: wildfire. Earlier this summer, the Santa Fe National Forest released the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, a vegetation management project proposal designed to improve ecosystem resiliency to wildfire.
The big news this morning is the Ute Park Fire in northern New Mexico near Ute Park and Cimarron, which blew up overnight to 8,000 acres. According to the New Mexico State Forestry update at 7:30 this morning, 12 structures at Philmont Scout Ranch were destroyed, and 150 other structures are threatened. As of Friday morning, Highway 64 is closed between Eagle Nest Lake and Cimarron and State Route 204 is closed at Cimarron. There are evacuation centers at the Eagle Nest Senior Center, Cimarron Elementary/Middle School and the Raton Convention Center. Around the state right now, there are a few other fires burning, including the Kellar Fire in the Lincoln National Forest, the Arena Canyon Fire in San Juan County and the Buzzard Fire in the Gila National Forest.
I stood motionless, afraid to even blink let alone breathe. His bulbous eye focused on the off-colored rock sitting before him. His 220-pound frame was sleek and well-defined but nothing compared to what it would be in a few months when he bulked up to begin defending his right to breed. The Rocky Mountain bighorn ram standing before me was already a fine specimen, he was soon going to be a fierce competitor as well. Imagining the thunderous clap resounding from his mighty horns as he beat down his rivals, I had little doubt he would maintain his bloodline this coming breeding season.
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. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Support New Mexico’s best environmental coverage. [/perfectpullquote]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.
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.
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.