With persistent drought, below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures, New Mexico forests — including Santa Fe National Forest — are facing a challenging wildfire season. To the south of us, the Three Rivers Fire (cause unknown) sparked in the Lincoln National Forest on Monday and reached 4,000 acres by the end of the day.

Lincoln and the Gila national forests already have fire restrictions in place, and fire managers for Santa Fe National Forest are keeping a close eye on fire indices across our forest. This is a good year to proactively address the risk of human-caused wildfires by imposing restrictions on things like campfires and cigarettes. Meteorologists are so far forecasting a “normal” monsoon, which would help ease those concerns over the summer.

But wildfire isn’t the only threat. Warmer, drier conditions also raise the risk from insects and disease. The 2020 New Mexico Forest Health Report recently issued by the State Forestry Division showed a 9 percent increase in the number of acres of state and private forested land with insect, disease and drought-stress damage. The Forest Service expects to find similar results when we do our own forest health survey.

Our Northern New Mexico forests evolved over millennia with high-frequency, low-intensity wildfires, which helped sustain an optimal composition and structure that included small groups of trees with interlocking crowns, scattered single trees, grassy open spaces, and scattered logs and snags. But 140 years of fire suppression have left our forests overstocked, unhealthy and at risk for high-severity wildfire.

The good news: Many years of scientific research and practical application on the ground have given us a management framework for improving the resilience of fire-adapted forest ecosystems like Santa Fe National Forest. The primary tools in the forest restoration toolbox are pretty straightforward. Strategically removing hazardous fuels by selectively thinning vegetation and putting prescribed fire on the ground helps us restore the forest to those pre-1880 conditions.

We can point to several success stories in Santa Fe National Forest where treatments had a positive impact on the course of a wildfire. The most recent example is last year’s Medio Fire, which was roaring through steep terrain north of Santa Fe when it ran into an area that had been treated by thinning and prescribed fire. The Medio Fire dropped to the ground and slowed its advance, giving firefighters the opportunity to hold it north of Pacheco Canyon Road and ultimately contain it at 4,000 acres.

Without the Pacheco Canyon project, the Medio Fire would have crossed the canyon and threatened significant values at risk, including the Santa Fe ski basin, the municipal watershed and Tesuque Pueblo inholdings.

Fire is a fact of life in fire-adapted ecosystems like Santa Fe National Forest. By using low- to moderate-intensity fire to consume dried grasses, needle litter, fallen branches and dead trees, we significantly reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire on a landscape we all cherish. Proactive land management, including science-based forest restoration, to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health is our best defense against hotter, drier conditions and longer, more extreme fire seasons.

Debbie Cress is the forest supervisor of Santa Fe National Forest, responsible for the management of 1.6 million acres of public land and the approximately 200 professionals who take care of it.

(3) comments

katrin smithback

Why is the forest service so reluctant to ban campfires? The failure to put out these fires and to properly manage them is responsible for a large proportion of our fires. We all need to adjust to the new climate reality; campfires are beautiful, but we should cook on our camping stoves and remove this unnecessary risk. The forest service is eager to do controlled burns, but very reluctant to take on campfires, grazing, ORV use and other causes of fires. Trust the public- we'll support what needs to change.

Emmy Koponen

Light burning was introduced to the newly formed Forest Service before 1920 and continued until the put out fires by 10 am rule came into effect. N tional parks have continuously had prescribed burns. We all hopefully know that sparks alight fires, and sparks do travel.

The amount of thinning and burning has reached obscene numbers. Anyone who has collected wood knows that rotten wood doesn't burn well at all so why remove the ground cover, when it has accumulated for years and is teaming with life and helps protect our earth from unbearable heat. five-eighths of all insects live in dead wood.

Beetles and all come and go but trees once removed in this time of climate total disruption only take away. Our beautiful old trees will not return, let them rot in place and leave their legacy.

If the forest clans had well trained personnel to selectively thin thick areas and the $ and manpower to really do restoration our forest might be more alive since this Santa Fe area was not heavily logged as was the Jemez or the Las Vegas area. Chipping as opposed to burning would help. as costly as fire equipment, the helicopters and chemicals of the setting of fires is actually cheaper than really doing something more worthwhile such as using the down trees to berm and hold runoff should we have another flood. They would hold the earth and give much needed shade for new trees and plants to hold.

We appear to to be in a state of total collapse. Our living and yes our dead trees are actually of use in place. And are necessary in the function of the forest.

In this Covid and air pollution time it is not wise to future pollute our skies and to reduce are air making forest.

Forest fires are scarey but they move fast unlike smouldering prescribed burns. i might add that the leaping flames from the latest Pacheco prescribed burn hardly resemble the knee high flames in the photos we see.

i would like people to think and to ask why no alternative to burning has been tried when " removing the fuel" has not really stopped the fires. terrain and weather are the main factors. And climate extremes should call for new measures .

This mess reminds me of a person shouting louder to a horse hoping for better results when the commands the rider is giving is not clear to the horse. thoughts?

carol Johnson

"And climate extremes should call for new measures." It's past time for the Forest Service to have learned how to deal with climate extremes! We have little time left and the USFS is still using old science, and foolishly trying to return to the forest model of the 1880's.

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