Burning Trees to Save the Forest

Late last week, white smoke plumed from the eastern Sangre de Cristos, the result of a three-day prescribed burn just north of the McClure Reservoir in the privatized watershed.

Burning dead and down tree by the McClure Reservoir. Photos by Brantlee Reid

It’s easy to assume the smoke in the mountains is a tragedy, a massacre of nature and an act of deforestation. “It’s a common misconception,” Forest Service Assistant Public Affairs Officer Cliff Russell says. “When people think fire, they think that we’re killing every single tree, and that it’s like a forest fire, raging through and leaving behind toothpicks, and that’s not what we do.” The white smoke you see indicates a slow and steady-burn that is mostly comprised of steam, as opposed to black smoke from a high-intensity fire.

The Cerro Grande plume on May 11, 2000, reaches the panhandle of Oklahoma (NOAA image) via Wikipedia.

The current burn was postponed early in the year due to unfavorable weather circumstances. It was too dry and too windy, conditions in which a fire can quickly become riotous, as with the Cerro Grande fire in May of 2000. What started out as a prescribed burn in the Bandelier National Monument quickly escalated to an unruly rampage and destruction of approximately 48,000 acres. “It’s not worth the risk of something like that happening if the conditions aren’t within what you want them to be,” Russell says of the Cerro Grande fire. “We want to put the fire on the ground on our terms.”

The burn was finally enacted Oct. 12 after extensive surveying and testing of the flammable features in the burn block for low levels of fuel moisture, factors that create a suitable setting for a controlled burn. “Measurements are taken beforehand and even during, every hour on the hour to make sure that it’s still ripe for burning,” archeologist Jana Comstock says.

Santa Fe National Forest Hotshot Superintendent David Simpson navigating the smoldering mountainside

Santa Fe National Forest Hotshot Superintendent David Simpson navigates the smoldering mountainside.

The low-intensity burns are a part of a huge interagency project that aims to preempt catastrophic wildfires in particularly susceptible environments, especially in areas that require protection from external threats such as the watersheds. If a high-intensity fire were to sweep the watershed during a dry summer in an untreated area, it would burn so large and hot that the soil would be consequentially destroyed, causing a vast amount of land to be uninhabitable by life for a couple years afterward. Come monsoon season, the rains would wash the leftovers like ash and dead trees into the water and taint the Santa Fe river and watersheds.

According to the Fire Service Federal website, in 1935, “the Forest Service had a “10 a.m.” policy which stipulated that a fire was to be contained and controlled by 10 a.m. following the report of a fire, for, failing that goal, control by 10 a.m. the next day and so on.” This resulted in the overgrowth and thickening of vegetation, and thwarted natural born fires from proceeding with the grooming necessary for a healthy and balanced environment. “Fire is a part of the natural ecosystem of the forest,” Russell says. “Because we took fire out of the ecosystem, we are now having to go back in and start to thin out the forests and reintroduce fire.”

Jana Comstock consults with Cliff Russell

Jana Comstock consults with Cliff Russell

The benefits of the controlled fires are obvious. Without them, the forest is cluttered with decomposing dead and downs and dry shreds of conifers, the perfect ingredients for an unmanageable forest fire. “The whole goal of prescribed burning isn’t to kill the trees, but to recycle all the dead stuff that has fallen: pine needles, pinecones, dead trees,” Russell says. “It releases nutrients into the soil and makes for a clean forest floor.” After prescribed burns, it only takes until spring for trees to regrow and start anew in a healthier environment.

The lightening-triggered McClure fire earlier this year is an example of the effectiveness of prescribed burns. Since the ground fuel was minimal due to previous treatments, it only maximized to 7.6 acres before the fire officials achieved 100 percent containment.

Russell encourages anyone who opposes the fires to witness them firsthand. “We have an open invitation for anybody who is against prescribed burning to come out here and see what we do, during a fire, after a fire, whenever.”

Treated area before a prescribed burn

Area before a prescribed burn

Prescribed burn one year later.

Prescribed burn one year later.