The Santa Fe area escaped the threat of extreme wildfire this summer, thanks to some well-timed monsoon rains.
But Nathan Miller, the city’s wildland fire superintendent, said the days of a confined fire season — roughly April to August — are long gone.
To combat the new realities, fire managers with the Santa Fe National Forest are preparing for hefty prescribed burns — 350 acres near the Nichols Reservoir and 2,500 acres near East Rowe Mesa — as early as Wednesday in preparation for severe fire conditions expected to last through February.
Richard Sack, a fire management planning specialist with the Santa Fe National Forest, said the burns are an essential part of preparing for extreme wildfires.
“Prescribed burns and thinning are hands down one of the most effective and ecologically sustainable ways to reduce the intensity and damage from unwanted wildfire,” he said. “If an unwanted wildfire burns into an area that has had some fuels treatment, be it from thinning or prescribed burning or both, wildfires burn less actively. This gives firefighters an exceptional advantage and many more options on how to stop the fire’s spread and protect valuable resources.”
Forest officials got bad news in recent days as experts predict a La Niña weather pattern through February — meaning dry conditions are expected to continue into the winter with below-normal precipitation for Northern New Mexico.
The predictions were much the same for the summer, but the area dodged a bullet thanks to monsoon rains that had a significant impact.
In June, fire restrictions were put in place for the forest amid summer heat and parched vegetation.
“June turned out to be very dry with the fire risk increasing to well above normal until the fateful day [June 27] when the monsoons showed up with a vengeance and drilled the fire risk down through August,” Sack said.
With the rain came the end of restrictions.
But as often happens in New Mexico, the impact the moisture wore off by September — and severe fire conditions had returned, Sack said.
Still, fire officials look back on summer with relief, knowing the result could have been far different.
“We definitely had what I call a receptive fuel bed based on what our conditions were,” said Richard Nieto, a wildland fire management officer for Los Alamos National Laboratory. “And the ignitions that we did have, they got on them pretty quickly.”
Nieto added the availability and access to firefighting resources played a role in the Los Alamos area, with collaboration between local organizations and departments a key factor.
In the Santa Fe area, Miller said fire-wary residents helped by being aware of the drought and respecting the ordinances that have been put in place. With Santa Fe largely fire free, city personnel were able to assist elsewhere: four times in New Mexico, once in California and once in Montana.
But as attention is turned to a dry winter and perhaps an even drier 2022, some observers worry the good fortune of this year won’t last. Madeleine Carey, the Southwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians, called the lack of an extreme wildfire in the Santa Fe area during the summer “pure luck.”
“We’re at a moment in time when the previous 100 years of poor forest management is colliding with the climate crisis,” she said. “Any fires we don’t have this summer we’ll have in the future.”
Carey noted the predictability of how local forests will react to fires is incredibly difficult.
Wildfires are a natural part of the Southwestern landscape and essential to the health of local forests, she said. But previous damage to the health of forests has resulted in unpredictable and extreme wildfires. Communities, Carey added, should place emphasis on home-hardening and wildfire preparedness.
Miller echoed that sentiment. He said Santa Fe and surrounding areas are still preparing for serious fire conditions expected through the winter.
“I feel personally that we are still there with the threat,” Miller said. “It’s really dependent again on snowfall, and we’re not gonna really see much snowfall this year.”