JEMEZ SPRINGS — A thick plume of dust rose behind the four-seat Ford truck as it bounced over rough roads Monday in the Santa Fe National Forest.
The clouds of dirt, blowing away like smoke, showed how dry the forest was, with drought conditions leaving the trees and forest floor combustible.
To mitigate the threat, 18 Forest Service personnel spread across the 285,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest’s Jemez Ranger District. They checked for illegal campfires, smoldering and abandoned campfires, trashed campgrounds, and reckless behavior, such as wild driving on all-terrain vehicles.
This was no weekend exercise conducted out of excessive caution. Several staffers had even come from Flathead National Forest in Montana to scour the 1.5 million acre Santa Fe National Forest because this is truly fire season in New Mexico. Montana’s comes later in the year.
The Forest Service has put in place Stage I fire restrictions, which forbid fires and cigarette smoking with a few exceptions. And though rain touched several areas of Northern New Mexico on Monday, officials remain wary about what lies ahead. A wildfire had already sparked over the weekend in the Cuba Ranger District in the northwest corner of the Santa Fe National Forest.
It had been a busy three-day weekend. Memorial Day launched camping season for many people in the region, meaning campers packed into some spots and dotted many others. A woman had suffered a severe arm injury and two others also were hurt in a utility terrain vehicle crash over the weekend on Forest Road 376 west of Jemez Springs.
The Jemez Ranger District is so highly used that staffers sometimes call it “Albuquerque North.”
Luke Helfinstine, a veteran of Forest Service work and firefighting, drove the big Ford truck Monday along that dirt road and over the bumpy spurs branching from it. He has spent about 16 seasons with the Forest Service and has fought wildfires from California to North Carolina.
“The woods is my office,” said Helfinstine, a full-timer with the Forest Service. “That’s what I like about it.”
His partner in the vehicle was seasonal worker Jade Cisneros, a 32-year-old woman who had tired of office work. This is her first season with the service.
“I wanted to be out in the forest,” Cisneros said.
Before hitting the woods, members of the crew listened to Engine Captain Adrian Gallegos discuss what to watch for, although they had been through the routine the two previous days. “Rinse and repeat,” he said poetically. “Same thing as yesterday.”
The forest in the Jemez Springs area rises from steep cliffs and deep canyons. Ponderosa pines dominate, but conifers, spruce, fir and aspen also grow in the region.
Helfinstine and Cisneros had just pulled off N.M. 4 and onto a dirt road when they encountered a group of eight.
“We can’t have fires,” he told the group, which included children and a puppy. “Will you go ahead and put it out?”
Members of the group doused it, then started to use their bottled water supply. “We’ve got water,” Helfinstine said. He and Cisneros filled a bucket from a 100-gallon tank in the back of their truck. He poured the water over the fire and Cisneros used a long ax to scrape at and overturn the hot dirt and fuel.
Helfinstine, 37, declined to call in a forest protection officer to give them a ticket. They had been compliant. If a group wants to argue, gripe and talk about “cops” and the “government,” he said he’s more inclined to bring in a ticketing officer.
Still, he was annoyed. “Bright yellow signs everywhere,” he said, referring to warnings against illegal campfires. And still people light them.
A short time later they came across another group that had started a fire. The children were cold, a woman explained. Helfinstine asked if there was a little red flag in that campfire ring (a new kind of Forest Service warning) and a man said, well, he saw one in another spot but not necessarily in this one.
Again he poured water from a bucket and Cisneros pounded at the hot campfire with the ax. The group was quiet. “Sorry to rain on your parade, man,” Helfinstine said. No tickets were necessary.
Helfinstine and Cisneros are far from hard-nosed. They want people to enjoy the natural beauty without putting it at risk. The pair picked up some trash in deserted campgrounds. Someone had built a makeshift toilet with a box and Styrofoam in one campground and used it. Helfinstine said he wouldn’t clean that up without a hazardous materials suit.
“A handful of folks … I just wish they’d have more respect for the forest,” he said.
Many people follow the rules. He and Cisneros drove by numerous campsites without having to stop.
It’s just good, he said, to show that the Forest Service is there.