On a dry and dusty afternoon in August, a white hot bolt of lightning zipped down from a thunderhead to the parched land below, sparking the dry grass of the Caja del Rio plateau. A few hours later, acres of land on the plateau were aflame and thick black smoke was billowing up from the landscape as the wildfire grew.
At the time, the Forest Service was already battling the Medio Fire, a larger wildfire burning northwest of Santa Fe in the Santa Fe National Forest. Early reports based on aerial surveillance estimated the Caja del Rio fire had burned 600 acres of land, but the Forest Service later revised the fire’s footprint down to 158 acres. One week later, the Caja del Rio fire was considered contained, while the Medio Fire still raged some 30 miles north. It would take another three weeks before that fire was fully contained.
The Medio Fire, which burned some 4,000 acres, returned attention to the impacts of climate change on New Mexico’s landscape, and the role of wildfire in forest management.
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.
ByLisa Song, ProPublica, and Paula Moura for ProPublica |
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. Next month, California regulators will decide whether to support a plan for tropical forest carbon offsets, a controversial measure that could allow companies like Chevron, which is headquartered there, to write off some of their greenhouse gas emissions by paying people in countries like Brazil to preserve trees. The Amazon rainforest has long been viewed as a natural testing ground for this proposed Tropical Forest Standard, which, if approved, would likely expand to countries throughout the world. Now that record fires are engulfing the Amazon, started by humans seeking to log, mine and farm on the land, supporters are using the international emergency to double down on their case for offsets.
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.
Last year, we wrote about campers abandoning fires over Memorial Day weekend, a time when New Mexico’s forests experience a big bump in visitor activity. Reporting that story was pretty startling. All told, campers just in the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest abandoned 19 campfires over that three-day weekend. Tagging along with fire protection officers for just one day, we saw unsafe campfires (some because they weren’t contained within a fire ring, others because they were way too big for their rings), people firing guns close to other campers and drivers of both trucks and ATVs in places they shouldn’t be. People left campfires burning while hiking; others left smoldering fires and trash behind after packing up altogether.
A training exercise on Kirtland Air Force based ignited the early March fire in the East Mountains that spread across 200 acres. An investigation by the 277th Air Base Wing Safety showed the Piñon Juniper Fire was started by a ground burst simulator. Like smoke grenades, ground burst simulators are used to prepare military personnel for scenarios and sounds they might encounter in combat. James Fisher with Kirtland Public Affairs said an interdisciplinary team has since developed and implemented new guidelines for training with smoke canisters, diversionary devices and ground burst simulators during times of high fire risk. “Training procedures have been amended to ensure that risk associated with fire hazard conditions requires substitutions with non-hazardous equipment or omission of certain training activities,” according to Fisher.
I smell the mounds of dead fish before seeing them. By now, the fish are desiccated. Most lie in low spots along the riverbanks where they crammed together, taking refuge as the last of the puddles and rivulets dried. The temperature is in the high 80s as we trudge up the sandy channel of the Rio Grande upstream of the town of San Antonio. I wonder what it must have smelled like two or three weeks ago, when the river first dried here.
The Fourmile Canyon Fire, sparked by a backyard burn west of Boulder, Colorado, in 2010, caused $220 million in damage and destroyed 168 homes. It also scorched nearly a quarter of a watershed that supplies water to the nearby community of Pine Brook Hills. The problems didn’t end there: Long after the blaze was put out, intense rainstorms periodically washed sediment and other particles downstream, disrupting water treatment and forcing the local water district to stop pulling water from Fourmile Creek, leaving it reliant upon water already collected in its reservoir. “The water coming down Fourmile Creek would get so dirty that we simply would shut down moving any water (from the creek),” for days or even weeks, says district manager Robert de Haas. “If we hadn’t built the reservoir” — in 2006 — “we’d have been in big trouble.”
On Sept. 14, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue officially declared that the 2017 fire season was the Forest Service’s most expensive ever, with costs topping $2 billion. Perdue noted that fire suppression, which accounted for just 16 percent of the agency’s budget in 1995, now takes up over 55 percent. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention,” he wrote in a press release, “because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.”
This story originally appeared at High Country News. The Forest Service’s fire funding is subject to a budget cap based on the average cost of wildfire suppression over the last 10 years.