Living with fire and its consequences: Can we restore our lives, forests, and watersheds?

By KAY MATTHEWS

In 2012, the first year La Jicarita went online, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila Mountains became the largest wildlife in New Mexico history, surpassing the previous year’s record-setting Las Conchas Fire in the Jemez Mountains. La Jicarita editor Jakob Schiller took photos of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew from Prescott, Arizona working the Gila fire, 19 of whom lost their lives the next year in the Yarnell Fire.

A firefighter burns away fuel from the perimeter in the struggle to contain New Mexico’s largest wildfire ever, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire, May 31, 2012. Photo by Jakob Schiller.

Over the next few years, as La Jicarita covered the aftermath of these fires, controversy raged over U.S. Forest Service policies both prior to these huge fires and the restoration projects developed post fire to try to remediate conditions that contributed to the conflagrations. When the Forest Service promulgated the Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration Project (SJMRP) to initiate thinning and prescribed burning in the Jemez, the La Jicarita comment page was filled with outrage at the agency’s plan: “This is the worst idea yet from a National Forest mismanaged for 100 years. The control burn is the management tool of bureaucrats desperate for funding,” and “Of course, this kind of mania is not new to America. America has a long history of inventing fanciful fictions to support the fervor of pillage, from such gems as ‘rain follows the plow,’ and the famous ‘Big rock candy mountain.’ To these we can add the fancy of burning the forest in order to save it.”

I wrote in the August 12, 2013 issue of La Jicarita, “Theoretically, considering what’s happened to the Jemez Mountains over the past few decades it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose a rigorous management plan of thinning, prescribed burning, and watershed restoration, which is what the SJMRP proposes. In practice, of course, it was a prescribed burn at Bandelier National Monument that started the Cerro Grande fire [that burned Los Alamos].” 

Over the course of the next few years I wrote article after article exploring all facets of the controversy and divergent ideas about what forest restoration even means. An October 12, 2012 article,  “Forest Restoration, the Story Goes On and On and On,“ looked into different schools of thought regarding what’s appropriate in ponderosa pine forests and what’s appropriate in mixed conifer. In an August 27, 2012 article, “Forest Restoration, Too Little Too Late?”, I discussed the schizophrenic fire management policy of the Forest Service from total suppression of fire to “let it burn” (with monitoring, of course). And an October 1, 2013 article, “Wildland Management: the “Hands On, Hands Off” was about the debate people were having over whether FS bad policy or climate change was the ultimate cause of the type of fires we’re seeing in the last decade.

Now, almost 10 years later, as we watch northern New Mexico burn (and the Gila), acknowledgement of the extended drought, exacerbated by the climate crisis, needs to push the conversation beyond assigning guilt to demanding action.  According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, on May 19, at least 85 percent of New Mexico was experiencing extreme to exceptional drought. The Forest Service prescribed burn in the upper Gallinas watershed above Las Vegas, that became the Hermits Peak Fire, was an action that escaped its boundaries due to the hot, dry weather and extreme winds. Until an in-depth analysis of the fire is completed, we won’t know if the Forest Service actually had the fire contained before it joined the Calf Canyon Fire whose cause remains unknown.

As I’ve recently reported in La Jicarita, forest restoration plans were ramping up just as the fires ignited in April. The Enchanted Circle Priority Landscape project, which encompasses parts of both Taos and Colfax counties along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was designated the highest priority of six other designated landscapes in terms of vulnerability to wildfire and in need of coordinated strategies to restore and improve natural resources that benefit its ecological and human communities. With federal funding coming down the pipe via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, there will be millions of dollars that can be used to fund work for watershed restoration, fire management, utility corridor safety, reforestation, urban forest restoration, and economic development for the many largely Hispano communities of el norte. 

Both the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire in Taos County and the Cooks Peak Fire in Colfax County are in or near the Enchanted Circle where the fires burned through heavily overstocked and diseased forest vegetation. The Tres Rios Watershed Coalition—the Embudo drainage from the Rio Pueblo to the Rio de Las Trampas—was the first of the individual groups designated by the Enchanted Circle Priority Landscape to meet and identify what forest areas have the highest priority for restoration work over the next five to ten year period.

The group agreed that forest transition areas of piñon/juniper to ponderosa pine that provide forest products, and areas on steep slopes that threaten watersheds, are the highest priority. The conversation quickly turned to both the Rio Pueblo watershed, along SH 518, and the Rio Santa Barbara watershed that includes Peñasco and surrounding communities. This is what the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire threatened when it moved from the devastated Mora Valley into the Alamitos/Angostura watersheds, tributaries of the Rio Pueblo.

Dead trees along the Serpent Lake Trail near Angostura                                              Photo by Marty Peale

As many of you know, there are numerous on-going forest thinning projects on the Camino Real and Questa Ranger Districts in the transition zones of ponderosa to piñon/juniper but are now on hold as the Forest Service implemented Stage 3 restrictions, essentially shutting down the forests because of the fires and dry weather conditions. These projects are primarily in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and include the leñero/mayordomo projects, local contractor thinning projects, and partnerships with State Forestry and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The mixed conifer forests of the watershed slopes, such as that of the Rio Pueblo watershed, present a more difficult fix. Watershed restoration projects that employ soil and erosion control methods will be a large part of the Enchanted Circle funding along with forest fire mitigation. The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire is still active, but with the recent days of snow and rain and much cooler temperatures the impacts on the Rio Pueblo were limited to the Alamitos/Angostura area and the east side of the watershed, in the La Junta Canyon area. Those of us in the Peñasco area communities that were on Ready, Set, and Go got lucky this time. It could have started here.

 Phase 1 Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Post-Fire BAER Soil Burn Severity Map was released on May 22 and divided the burned acreage into Low, Moderate, and High damage. Government agencies will use this as a guide when the restoration work begins. FEMA has been working in the affected communities for weeks. Additional emergency funding is being channeled through various other agencies and there will be legal action taken through class action or by individuals. And, of course, there will be more fires as the climate crisis continues. It’s difficult to maintain optimism after seeing photos of the devastation wreaked by these fires, particularly for a generation whose ancestors inhabited these mountain villages for centuries and who won’t live to see the regrowth of the forests we’ve hiked, skied, and loved. But we can’t let a lack of hope segue into a lack of action. Locally, we can use the resources available to us. Globally, that regrowth depends on that very small increment of Celcius or Farenheit.

 

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