Prescribed burns can meet or defeat forest goals

By Teresa Seamster, Soil Research Project Coordinator
From the Winter 2024 newsletter

Take a match and apply it to a collection of natural fuels from around your home – leaves, twigs, a scoop of dry topsoil, sage, grasses, pine needles and even cacti. They all burn when there is enough heat, oxygen, airflow and lack of moisture.

The devastation left after the northern wildfires last year has changed ways of thinking about what can burn and under what conditions.

Prescribed fires lit in Santa Fe National Forest when there was snow on the ground in Calf Canyon continued to smolder below ground until low soil moisture combined with wind and a prescribed fire at Hermit’s Peak caused ignition — scorching a third of a million acres before it was put out.

Historically, needed pile burns could be successfully conducted in Black Canyon during winter without fear of a fire smoldering until windy spring weather could re-ignite it. Those conditions have changed.

This year, scientists at the National Soil Moisture Monitoring Network Conference determined that fire managers must evaluate more factors, particularly the correlation between soil moisture and plant moisture to adequately predict fire risk and conditions of advanced drought. Ideal prescribed burn “windows” will be fewer.

State Forester Laura McCarthy, speaking at the November International Association of Wildland Fire Conference, mentioned that “Soil moisture is on my mind” as a key gap in data collection and an important factor in evaluating fire. While other agency leaders from BLM, USFS, FEMA and Bureau of Indian Affairs emphasized their regret along with the “lessons learned” from the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, McCarthy focused on the ”unforeseen realities” of this fire and the need to learn and respond to those new realities.

In response to these new needs, Lisa Markovchick, PhD (WildEarth Guardians) and I recently formed the Santa Fe Mountains Soil Research Project to monitor soil health, with lab support from St. John’s College’s Evans Scientific Lab, and permission and staff time from Santa Fe National Forest.

During a November visit to a proposed prescribed burn area in Black Canyon, the Soil Research team looked at ground conditions that showed poor results in previously treated areas, with large slash piles and dry and non-native vegetation.

Testing of soil moisture levels, soil biota and fuel moisture should help determine what impacts thinning and prescribed burn treatments are having on the ability of treated forests to regenerate properly.

The team is checking locations for spring monitoring in 2024. Santa Fe National Forest has provided assistance with mapping and treatment schedules, and St. John’s College has kindly donated space at their Evans Scientific Lab.

Featured image: The Black Canyon area treated 5 years ago still has unburned slash piles taller than the deer. (Photo by Teresa Seamster)

Prescribed burns can meet or defeat forest goals