Just after 10 a.m. Tuesday, a 40-person crew began dripping diesel fuel onto foliage in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed, sparking the first prescribed burn of the season.
Forest Service officials said they expected to burn 500 acres in the canyon east of the city by the end of the day, including piles of sheared tree limbs and other forest debris.
By noon, a helicopter loaded with pingpong balls of potassium permanganate flew low over the forest, dropping aerial kindling into hard-to-reach parts of Santa Fe National Forest.
Despite high winds over the weekend, conditions appeared optimal Tuesday for the burn near Nichols Reservoir, according to a news release from the National Forest Service and the National Weather Service. In addition to mild temperatures and low winds, the direction of the wind and expected rainfall Tuesday night or Wednesday — and snowfall in the mountains — were expected to reduce the effects of smoke in Santa Fe.
“The type of conditions we are experiencing — warm, windy, dry conditions — normally would be conducive for fire growth,” said Clay Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “And the middle of April could be a time that would occur.”
However, he said, the amount of moisture on the ground after a wet winter in Northern New Mexico makes the chances of a prescribed fire getting out of control “highly unlikely.”
“A month from now that could be a completely different story, but right now it is an extremely low possibility,” he said.
Forest Service officials warned that residents in Santa Fe, Eldorado, Tesuque, Pecos and Glorieta could see plumes of smoke, which was expected to settle into lower regions of the city overnight and could linger for up to a week.
The prescribed burn is part of a 10-year plan to improve forest conditions — and protect the region and its water resources from a large-scale wildfire — across more than 17,000 acres of the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed.
Officials advised people who are sensitive to smoke to stay indoors.