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.