Northern megafires lead to lessons

By Teresa Seamster
From the Fall 2022 newsletter

After battling two disastrous Northern New Mexico “escaped prescribed burns” this year, the U.S. Forest Service has recently completed a National Prescribed Fire Program Review. Responding to the historic fire intensity and widespread damage of the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires, the report outlines many valuable lessons learned and new ignition rules, but does not provide prescriptive treatments to improve the forest conditions caused by climate change.

Fortunately, promising experimental fire-reduction treatments and new forest soil research is becoming available that can improve the multiple stresses forests face including soil aridity, loss of microorganisms, plant transpiration, hotter air temperatures, higher winds and “freak” gusty wind storms that can return without warning for weeks at a time, making for intense, uncontrollable fire.

The national review outlines many key changes to current prescribed burning practices:

  1. New safeguards, such as same-day authorizations to burn, that keep pace with changing weather and ground conditions;
  2. Mandatory practices that include more “robust scientific analysis of burn plans” and on-site assessment for spotting human error “linked to fatigue or inexperience”; and
  3. Standardizing permissions to ignite fires and other essential communications with bosses and crews.
Ortiz mountains with thinning.

Part of the robust scientific findings related to the health and resilience of forests is the importance of maintaining cool, shaded moist soil and retaining the vast underground network of mature tree roots that provide the forest floor with stability and a flow of moisture, nutrients, essential bacteria and microorganisms.

President Biden’s recent Executive Order “Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities and Local Economies” defines the protection of mature trees and old-growth forests on federal land as “one of the most cost-effective climate policies the U.S. can employ at this time. These forests contain the bulk of stored forest carbon and provide watershed functions, vital habitats and biodiversity benefits.”

A promising new mature tree-resiliency approach is being tested in the Ortiz Mountains Preserve south of Santa Fe by County Open Space and ornithologist Peggy Darr. A recent visit to the Ortiz 200-acre test site showed careful retention of mature trees, and a 50% removal of small trees (under 8 inches in diameter) and understory ladder fuels. This slash material was cut and used as a light mulch while bigger logs were used for small check dams and on steep slopes for erosion control. Large trees benefited from more groundwater, and the forest floor bloomed with regenerated oak, fir, piñon and ponderosa saplings, wildflowers and a host of insects and pollinating butterflies. The threatened Grace’s Warbler is the “test” species being monitored and shows early indications of population growth.

A Santa Fe County Commission is planning to hold apublic “listening session” on prescribed burns will be held on November 10th, via zoom, starting at 5:30 p.m.

Featured image: prescribed burn in Grande Canyon, from Flickr

Northern megafires lead to lessons