The Conservation Beat
3:27 pm
Tue February 28, 2012

Fighting Fire With Fire in New Mexico

Fire scientists and land managers from across the Southwest are gathered in Santa Fe this week to talk about last year’s record-breaking wildfire season and how to prepare for what’s ahead.  

The first day of the conference, hosted by the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, featured a field trip to the edges of the Las Conchas burn area.  KUNM’s Conservation Beat reporter, Sidsel Overgaard, tagged along and has this report.

Scientists and land managers from across the Southwest are gathered in Santa Fe this week to talk about last year’s record-breaking wildfire season and how to prepare for what’s ahead.  The first day of the conference, hosted by the Southwest featured a field trip to the edges of the Las Conchas burn area.  KUNM’s Conservation Beat reporter, Sidsel Overgaard, tagged along and has this report.

If you only remember one word in this story, remember this: “inevitable.”   There will be a test.

At the stroke of 8 I step onto a bus full of fire professionals and settle in next to a man dressed in his Forest Service greens.  Bill Armstrong, is fuels specialist for the Santa Fe National Forest and very well-acquainted with wildfire.  Before we’ve left Santa Fe city limits, he spells it out:

“We cannot keep fire out of these forests. We’ve tried for a hundred years and now we’re reaping the whirlwind, so to speak.”

Armstrong is referring here to the Forest Service’s century-long policy of suppressing periodic natural wildfires that would have cleared out forest underbrush, while leaving big trees mostly unharmed.

“If you accept that fire is inevitability, then the rest falls into place. The choice is not whether it burns or not. It’s how it burns. The only chance we have to affect the number of acres is fire.”

That is, prescribed burns.  They prevent the build up of fuel that’s behind the ragers we’ve seen lately: tree-destroying fires like Cerro Grande and Las Conchas.  He says other techniques like thinning, don’t make a dent.

But there are two challenges in fighting fire with fire: money and public acceptance. One of OUR stops is at the Valles Caldera Science Education Center, where participants learn about one program helping a bit on the money side.  Jon Williams is ecosystem staff officer with the Santa Fe National Forest

“In the past, we would do projects, little postage stamps. You know 300, 400 acres here a little more over there but we decided that running the numbers we’d treat for 500 years before we’d even make one rotation of the commercial land on the Santa Fe National Forest to really make a difference, so we felt like we needed to accelerate that process.”

Luckily, that’s right about the time Congress passed a measure, authored by Senator Jeff Bingaman, to set aside 40 million dollars a year for forest restoration on large swaths of land.  A partnership between the Forest Service, Valles Caldera and others became one of the first recipients, eligible for up to 4 million dollars a year for ten years.

Back on the bus, Bill Armstrong tells me that money may allow the Santa Fe Forest to carry out burns on about 20-thousand acres this year…almost double what it’s done in the past.  But my cynical seatmate figures that’s still only about half of what’s needed to really make a difference.

“Back here on my left is where the fire started.”

The bus travels between Jemez and Bandalier, areas devastated last summer by New Mexico’s largest wildfire.  Armstrong takes the mic.

“The interesting thing here is you can see the trees didn’t even scorch.”

Later, Armstrong points toward a band of mostly-green ponderosas right along the roadan area he says was essentially protected because it had seen periodic fire over the last few decades.  Just behind it is a hill that had not been burned until last summer.  There is almost nothing on it.  The line could not be clearer.

But, asks one participant, how does the public feel about all this?

“On this bus here, we tend to think our own universe is the center of everything. This is the most important thing going on in the world. You know, most people don’t give a damn. We live in a society that’s principally urban. Urban people are the ones that drive policy. And fire and forest is not high on their list. Smoke certainly is when we impact them with smoke.”

The public has other reasons to be wary of forest management.  After all, the Cerro Grande fire started as a prescribed burn.  But Ann Bradley with the Nature Conservancy says a lot has been learned since then.

“No matter what, even if we say, gosh we don’t like the smoke from prescribed fires, inevitably fire will happen. Basically, years of review and people considering that and trying to improve systems and I think people that fought the Las Conchas would agree the coordination is so much better.”

Bob Parmenter is the Preserve Scientist for the Valles Caldera. “This is the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The Las Conchas fire started here and came across. You can see the burned ridge top here.”

Parmenter says a graduate student working here recently discovered that widespread fires like this are not unusual in fact between the years 1600 and 1900 the entire Valles Caldera burned 22 times, either in one year, or over the course of two years.  And he says she found something interesting about the weather patterns too.

“The year before the major fire occurred was a normal year in precipitation that, of course, provides the moisture to from grass which is the fuel to burn. Then the year of the fire following that normal wet year was a significantly dry year and then if it was a two year sequence where half burned in one year and half burned the next the next year was below average as well.”

Sound familiar-A three year cycle of wet, dry, dry?

This would be the time to remember that word I mentioned at the start of this story.

Who is the Trout in this Scenario? earth air waves

To see pictures from last summer's Las Conchas fire, click here.