In the heart of the ponderosa pine forests in the western half of the Carson National Forest, not far from the tiny communities of Vallecitos, Cañón Plaza and La Madera, the forest was …
In the heart of the ponderosa pine forests in the western half of the Carson National Forest, not far from the tiny communities of Vallecitos, Cañón Plaza and La Madera, the forest was quiet in the way only a forest can be: jays and flickers sounding off and the wind passing softly through the trees.
It was the last week of July, nearly a month after the Bonita Fire had moved through about 7,500 acres of the forest.
This was no martian landscape devoid of trees and wildlife, blackened through and through. In the remains of the Bonita Fire, everything looks - well - normal.
The effects of the fire are subtle. A few small saplings are completely torched, but grasses were sprouting through the lightly charred forest floor. Elk tracks lace unseen thoroughfares. The meadows are wet and the afternoon monsoons are coming.
A bolt of lightning started the fire June 3. Forest managers would eventually coax it larger and farther into the forest over the course of the month in an effort to improve the health of the forest. It was the most recent example of a relatively new approach the U.S. Forest Service is taking to reintroduce the natural rhythm of fire into the landscape.
'You can't force it'
Letting naturally caused wildfires burn through a forest runs counter to a century of federal forest policy and most people's gut reactions. For much of the 20th century, every fire was promptly put out. Smokey Bear, ever the helpful mascot, drove home the message.
But the results were disastrous. The forests around Taos and the rest of the West are "overstocked," dense with weak, dying and dead trees. The air can hardly move.
That type of overgrown forest was the backdrop to catastrophic wildfires. Examples include the Las Conchas near Los Alamos, which shut down Albuquerque's water system in 2011, and the Hondo Fire of 1996 that burned off the western slope of Flag Mountain near Lama and Questa.
As more and more research has shown, some forests need fire.
The ponderosa pine forests that cover as much as 60 percent of Forest Service land in New Mexico and Arizona spent millennia evolving with low- and mid-intensity fires that slowly chew on the debris of the forest floor rather than the now-common high-intensity fires that race through crowns of mighty trees.
Forests can't thrive without fire, said El Rito District Ranger Jim Gumm as he took a recent tour around the area burned by the Bonita Fire. Fires take out smaller, weaker trees that suck up water from the mountains like a million straws; bigger, healthier trees grow even bigger and healthier in their place. Nutrients are recycled into the forest. Encroaching trees are pruned from the edges of delicate forest meadows and wetlands, whose deep, dank soils keep the natural flow of water in check. Fire creates new meadows, freeing up the forest for smaller shrubs and grasses for elk, deer, bear and the less charismatic fauna and flora.
Around 2000, the Forest Service introduced the idea of bringing a natural cycle of fire back into the landscape in a big way. Before that, natural-start wildfires were used exclusively in designated wilderness, where no machines are allowed, even for the fighting of fire. But the Forest Service let the idea loose - giving local forest managers a new tool in a toolbox that mostly contained prescribed burns and thinning trees by hand.
"That really expanded the landscape we could consider," said Pam Boswick, a regional Forest Service manager.
Over the past 17 years, the idea has gained traction. It's taken the majority of that time for the Carson National Forest to really put the strategy into action.
It wasn't for lack of trying. "We've been looking for opportunities," said Chris Furr, an officer on the Carson and former district ranger. "You have to have a lot of different things line up right: the right conditions in the right place at the right time of year. You can't force it."
Those conditions include the rains, ambient moisture, heat and humidity; the number of wildland firefighters, trucks and other tools available in the country; the money in the budget; and leadership within the agency, as well as local political will and public awareness.
The Carson National Forest finally got a chance to try its hand at the new strategy last year with the McGaffey Fire in 2016 near Llano Quemado. Even that fire, Furr said, was on the border between the thrust of fire season and the core of the monsoons, when there's usually too much moisture to let a fire grow.
Mosaic of burns
When the fire season ramped up again this year, the Carson took another stab at essentially using lightning strikes as prescribed burns, treating the ecosystem the agency's old policy made sick.
The Forest Service takes "a methodical look" at whether or not each lightning-started fire is the right fire to grow into a landscape-scale tool for the forest, Gumm said.
Ultimately, two fires were put to use this year. The first was the Hondito Fire, near Tres Piedras. The second was the Bonita Fire.
The smoke churned out by the nascent Bonita Fire was reported on a Friday in early June. The following Saturday, Gumm and Daniel Cedeño, an assistant fire management officer, were circling the smoke in a helicopter, checking out the small fire's behavior, the surrounding network of roads and other factors, such as creeks, terrain and past fire areas.
The personnel and money were there. And forest managers were ready. So once they drew out there initial "box," or planning area contained by existing roads and landscapes, Gumm and others called in the local wildland firefighters and set to work on growing - not suppressing - the blaze.
In the beginning, it was mostly local Forest Service crews that prepped the fire line. In some places, the fire line is just an 18-inch band of dirt exposed by raking away the forest litter; in the areas around Cañón Plaza, the fire line was an existing road on the back portion of some properties that was scraped clean with a bulldozer.
At last, crews used drip torches and helicopters to light fire within the planned boundaries. It's a nuanced process that relies on the topography, weather conditions and natural fire behavior to direct the flames through the landscape.
The idea that crews simply "let it burn" is far from the truth, Gumm said. Wildfire managers are constantly evaluating how the fire is behaving, where it's moving and what might happen next. Meanwhile, wildland firefighters are weaving in and out of the forest, putting down more fire and felling trees that could prove problematic.
The Bonita Fire was of the ilk that generally burns low and slow - partially consuming the duff, or dry leaves, and taking little limbs off trees. Very little of the canopy burned. Very few needles on ponderosas and firs turned brown. As long as a tree has about 20 percent of its leaves after a fire, it should live.
But as gentle as most of the fire was, it wasn't uniform. "Natural wildfires make a mosaic," said Gumm. "It can vary tree to tree."
Because forest fires follow the fuel, some areas burn hotter, longer and more intensely than others. That happened on a ridge near Forest Road 110. About midway through the Bonita Fire, it got hot. The relative humidity dropped. Strong winds moved in. The fire jumped the initial box.
As a general rule for safety, firefighters try to start fires higher up in the landscape and move them down. But the wind pushed the flames and funneled them up drainage to the top of the ridge.
"It was a confluence of terrain and wind," said Cedeño. As the flames moved up the ridge, it dried out and preheated everything upslope, giving the fire energy it didn't already have. It burned with a high enough intensity that trees and the ground were left totally scorched. In all, only 170 acres, or just 2 percent of the burn area, was classified as high intensity.
Because of the fire's heat and movement, it was eventually suppressed.
Risks, but with payoffs
While forest managers get excited talking about the short-term payoffs for wildlife and the hunters who hunt them, as well as the long-term benefits to the forest as a whole, they also acknowledged the risks.
"The easy decision is to go and put it out," said Gumm. "There's risk in managing a fire." Fires, burning hot enough, could be detrimental to streams, soils and, in the worst-case scenario, human communities.
And fires produce lots of smoke, which can shut a road down. People who are sensitive to smoke or have respiratory issues have to watch out for the impacts of wildfires. Several smoke advisories were issued during the Bonita Fire, and an emergency shelter was opened at the last minute one evening (though no one stayed the night).
But now that the Carson has a decent amount of practice handling wildfires to improve forest health, the agency is open to continue doing so in the years ahead.
As more and more low-intensity fires burn through the Carson, Gumm said, "that gives us freedom in making smart decisions" in the future.
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