Defenders of the flames: Coalition says controlled burns help keep New Mexico forests healthy

Defenders of the flames: Coalition says controlled burns help keep New Mexico forests healthy

Hope Nowalk of the US Geological Survey leads a group of about a dozen scientists, forestry officials, firefighters and tribal representatives on a hike May 3 through Black Canyon to the Santa Fe Watershed. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE NATIONAL FOREST — Hiking through the woods last week, a group of ecologists and forest managers stopped repeatedly to point out mountainsides dotted with towering, healthy trees.

And they shared a message many New Mexicans weren’t eager to hear: Fire — in the right circumstances — is vital for a thriving forest.

The group pitched the benefits of prescribed burns while leading a short hike near the Black Canyon Campground just east of Santa Fe, highlighting forested areas that had benefited from past burns carried out safely.

The tour — organized by members of the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition — follows the devastating 2022 fire season, when two prescribed started by the US Forest Service burns grew out of control and merged into the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire ultimately burned 534 square miles of wilderness and private land; destroyed 900 structures, including hundreds of homes, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee. A year later, residents are still bracing for floods and looking out at mountains filled with blackened trees.

Anger at the federal government runs deep.

But the fireshed coalition is encouraging New Mexicans to think of prescribed burns as part of the strategy for limiting the severity of future wildfires. After a nationwide pause for 90 days last year, the Forest Service has resumed its prescribed fire program.

As he walked in the forest this week, Wildland Superintendent Nathan Miller of the city of Santa Fe Fire Department, said it’s 100% safer for firefighters to battle a wildfire in an area that’s been previously treated with a prescribed burn.

“I’d say keep an open mind,” he said of New Mexicans’ anxiety about prescribed burns. “It’s not only better for the public, it’s also better for firefighter safety. It’s better for restoration after the fire, to have a healthier forest.”

Ellis Margolis, a scientist with the US Geological Survey, uses a slice of a tree to show the history of fire in the Santa Fe watershed May 3. Fire was a healthy part of the forest until humans intervened, he said. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Ellis Margolis, a research ecologist for the US Geological Survey, said fire-suppression efforts stretching back 130 years or more have deprived forests of a natural process they need to thrive.

“We, as humans, took fire out of these systems — just like taking water out of a river,” he told the Journal as he hiked through the Santa Fe National Forest.

Before human intervention, Margolis said, it was natural for New Mexico’s forests to endure low-level fires every few years. Flames, he said, cleared out smaller trees and brushed them without climbing into the forest canopy and destroying the older, taller ponderosa pines.

“We’ve got to figure out how to live with fire again,” Margolis said. “We’ve stopped it, and now we’re paying the consequences with these big, massive fires.”

But the value of prescribed burns is a tough sell in a state where residents have endured massive fires that began as controlled burns.

In this 2008 photo, Bill Armstrong of the Forest Service watches a prescribed burn on a section of the Santa Fe watershed. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Anna Hansen, chairwoman of the Santa Fe County Commission, said she regularly hears from constituents who fear a prescribed burn will result in another wildfire — anxiety worsened by the experience of last year’s Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.

Story in pictures: The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire and the devastation that followed

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the largest recorded fire in state history, tore through Northern…

“We all care about the forest,” she said in a telephone interview. “We want it to be healthy.”

Hansen isn’t opposed to prescribed burns altogether, she said, but forest managers should limit their scale and seek out alternatives.

“I want people to recognize that there are many ways to solve this problem,” she said. “There’s not just one answer.”

Sandy Hurlocker, a retired Forest Service ranger, now lives in Los Alamos, where landscapes that once held forests were empty following the disastrous Cerro Grande Fire of 2000. It started as a controlled burn.

“I’m reminded every day of what fire can do in a forested environment,” he said of living in Los Alamos. “There is no forest.”

Even so, he said, he supports prescribed burns as a strategy to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.

Mistakes make a lasting public impression, Hurlocker said, but plenty of prescribed burns have helped limit the spread of wildfires and made forests more resilient without attracting much attention.

Craig Allen, an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, described it as a “classic Catch-22.”

Any fire — prescribed or not — creates risk, he said, but it’s more dangerous to leave overgrown forests alone, accumulating fuel.

“It’s not the lowest risk thing to do nothing, at this point,” Allen said.