On a late June afternoon, 18 mile-per-hour winds whistle across an open meadow on a small piece of private land in the Jemez Mountains. In the saddle between two pine-covered ridges at the edge of the property, an aspen tree teeters over onto the bare wire of an electrical pole, causing a spark. Over the next 14 hours, the resulting fire burns 43,000 acres, or one acre every 1.17 seconds. It devours areas the size of a football field in (literally) two seconds. In a little over a month, it has spread through 156,000 acres and incinerated 63 homes.
The Las Conchas fire, named for the Las Conchas ranch where it started, became the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. It burned many of the same areas that endured the previous record-holder—the 2000 Cerro Grande fire. Without significant changes in the way northern New Mexico's forests are managed, another fire—perhaps as soon as next summer—will top Las Conchas' demonstration of power with an even more formidable blaze.
In the months since Las Conchas raged across northern New Mexico, an ongoing discussion has ensued—not just about the wildfire's immediate cause (currently the subject of a lawsuit against the power company, Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, for failing to properly maintain the wire), but also about the larger issues underpinning it and other fires across the Southwest. And while certain factors make it seem the fire was almost inevitable, others highlight the tensions inherent in humans' attempts to manage nature.
One immediate cause of Las Conchas' out-of-control expansion was the forest itself: The trees were primed to burn.
"The fuel moisture levels in the Jemez were lower last summer than anyone had ever seen them before," Tom Ribe, executive director of the Caldera Action advocacy group and author of a book about wildfire in New Mexico, says. "That just makes for explosive conditions; you just can't fight fire when it's that dry."
Kiln-dried lumber sold for construction contains, on average, about 12 percent moisture. By contrast, moisture levels in Jemez Mountain trees last summer ranged from 5 percent all the way down to below 1 percent. A key contributing factor was last year's drought—the second-worst in recorded New Mexico history, with rainfall at just a fraction of normal levels in many parts of the state. That drought directly caused the low moisture in vegetation. Although many factors can increase the potential for forest fire, most fires on the scale of Las Conchas owe part of their origins to drought and wind, according to a publication of the northern California-based Foundation for Deep Ecology.
Drought is hardly out of character in the Southwest, and its effect on the area's fire profile is obvious. According to research by Stephen Pyne, a professor of environmental history and forest management at the University of Texas, more acres of the Southwest burn, on average, than almost any other region in the US anually.
One significant fire that burned in the Jemez in the late 19th century didn't even make it into the historical record—further evidence for the natural frequency of forest fires. From tree-ring data, scientists know that a two-year blaze occurred in the 33,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, part of the Jemez Mountains, in the summers of 1860 and 1861. The fire burned about half of the caldera land the first year and finished the job the second year. Robert Parmenter, preserve scientist for the Valles Caldera Trust, says there's no historical record of that blaze because, before the invention of advanced fire-fighting methods, such forest fires were probably too common to rate a mention. According to some historians, early Puebloan civilizations were initially built on mesas in order to avoid frequent forest fires.
"You couldn't live in the valleys here in the summer because they were just choked with smoke all summer long, and the only fresh air was up on top of the mesas," Parmenter says. "Smoke in these canyons of the West was probably extremely common back in the 1800s, so to anybody that would be writing things down in Santa Fe, it's just another smoky summer as far as they can tell."
Historically, most Southwest forests burned every five to 20 years—but according to tree ring data, there was a significant fire in the Jemez mountains about every 1.6 years. One researcher recorded 160,000 lightning strikes—a common cause of fires—in one decade there (from the beginning of 1985 to the end of 1994).
Forest fires were not just common in the Jemez at that time; they were essential to its health, Santa Fe National Forest Fuels Specialist Program Manager Bill Armstrong says.
"You could call [ponderosa pine forests] fire-dependent because, without fire, they change very dramatically," Armstrong says.
But the ponderosa pine forests of today in New Mexico are not the same as they were 100 years ago. Historically, forests in northern New Mexico had 40-60 trees per acre; today, as many as 3,000 trees crowd each acre.
The character of New Mexico's forests has also changed. Once, old-growth trees dominated, with a carpet of native grasses covering the forest floor. The grasses kept most of the numerous ponderosa pine seeds from taking hold. Although forest fires were more frequent in the days before smokejumpers parachuted in from helicopters to extinguish them, fire probably never reached the bushy treetops. Instead, it likely ran through the grassy forest floor, leaving mature trees mostly unscathed and clearing out smaller growth.
But by the end of the 19th century, that picture had begun to change. As human populations expanded, they brought in livestock, harvested old-growth trees for lumber and squelched forest fires rather than letting them burn.
In 1883, a rancher brought 3,000 cows to the Jemez Mountains. Ecologists estimate that number was 10 times what the area could tolerate; the cattle went on to decimate native grasses and destroy natural streambeds.
"When we look at the soils and the geology, we believe that the streams were really broad wetlands with lots of little fingers of streams, multiple threads of streams," Marie Rodriguez, the Valles Caldera's natural resource coordinator, tells SFR. The wetlands supported vegetation that prevented erosion and shaded the water, creating the cool environment necessary to support native trout and forming a barrier that prevented wildfires from spreading.
But as livestock consumed the grasses and eroded the soils, shrubs and small trees moved in. This undergrowth in turn provided a "ladder" whereby wildfires could climb to the treetops—with catastrophic results. Ultimately, this easy transmission of flame from forest floor to canopy allowed the Las Conchas fire to zip through areas the size of football fields in the blink of an eye.
The deleterious effect of grazing on woodlands has been acknowledged at least since 1924, when naturalist Aldo Leopold observed the encroachment of woody plants in heavily grazed areas of Arizona. The question of whether grazing and forest management can ever work synergistically, however, remains open, and both Santa Fe National Forest and the Valles Caldera continue to run grazing programs.
Perhaps even more contentious, though, is the relationship between logging and forest management. In the late 1800s, temporary railroads in the Jemez Mountains made it possible to haul out 600-year-old ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. Loggers removed so much lumber from the caldera that photos from the turn of the century to the 1970s show extensive decimation of the forests. Although clear-cutting in the caldera stopped in 1972, "they were still actively removing the largest, most valuable trees," Rodriguez says.
In the 1990s, new environmental regulations curbed this trend considerably, and commercial logging on national forest lands decreased by 75 percent. Still, there's continuing political pressure to raise that level back up—and, as with grazing, some still argue that more logging, rather than less, would help decrease wildfires.
"You'll have guys like [US Rep.] Steve Pearce say the reason we're having these big fires is because of federal policies that restricted logging because of the spotted owl or whatever," New Mexico Wildlife Federation spokesman Joel Gay says.
Armstrong says the Endangered Species Act, along with requirements to protect cultural landmarks like Native American sites, does affect the Forest Service's ability to do prescribed burning and thinning, but isn't the primary problem. Like the relationship between commercial grazing interests and appropriate forest management, the ability of commercial logging interests to dovetail conveniently with forest management needs is an open question. On National Park land, like Bandelier, sale of any lumber is strictly forbidden. When forest managers thin vegetation, it is sometimes given away as firewood, but it can never be sold.
On Forest Service land, and trust land like the Valles Caldera, things are more complicated.
On a brisk November morning, New Mexico contractor Terry Connelly directs a crew to pile up trees after felling and delimbing them. Afterward, they will haul off the logs, load them on vehicles and take them to processing plants where they are turned into wood chips for playgrounds and similar uses.
Connelly makes a small revenue by repurposing that wood, but it doesn't defray the cost of removing the logs. Essentially, trees that are valuable for lumber are large; trees that need to be removed for forest management purposes are small. Allowing Connelly to repurpose some of the wood reduces the forest management costs by a small margin.
Forest managers create a "prescription" for thinners to follow, often based on tree diameter. Tree species and tree health can also factor in. On this particular day, Connelly has removed invasive white fir of all sizes; thinners also sometimes target forked trees, which will reproduce similarly deformed offspring.
Thinning is expensive, to the tune of about $1,000 an acre. The federal government's need to manage forests cost-effectively, combined with the pressure from logging interests, creates an ongoing question about where thinning ends and logging begins.
"There's always been a conflict for environmentalists between thinning and commercializing thinning," Parmenter says. "What they're always trying to do is push the diameter of trees that they can call thinning up. You start getting into 16-inch, 17-inch trees, and they say, 'Oh, this is still thinning,' and environmentalists will say, 'No, it's not; that's starting to be logging.' If you're doing honest thinning, where you're really just taking the smaller stuff out, there's not a whole lot of use for that."
Because of the collapsed housing market, Armstrong says, lumber doesn't bring much income right now anyway.
"The value of the material is almost nonexistent," Armstrong says. "Trees are worth nothing. As far as offsetting costs, we haven't seen any great reduction in the cost of treatment when we've allowed people to take the wood. I mean some, and it's certainly better than nothing, but of the hundreds of thousands of acres we potentially could thin, we just don't have the capacity to get rid of all that stuff."
At about $100 per acre, controlled burning is much less expensive than thinning. But making the shift from suppressing fires to lighting them intentionally is difficult for the public to accept.
"When we light fires, we're sons of bitches," Armstrong says. "When we put out fires, we're heroes."
The devastating Cerro Grande fire—a prescribed burn gone terribly wrong—didn't exactly help that cause. Even though less than 3 percent of prescribed burns "escape" the precise area they're supposed to treat—and usually don't make it very far before they're curtailed—the memory of Cerro Grande's destruction runs deep. "Every time we bring up prescribed fire, we always hear about Cerro Grande," Armstrong says. "That's always held up as, 'This is what could happen.'"
Ironically, the history of fire suppression, along with logging and grazing, caused the conditions that made Cerro Grande so destructive. The fuel provided by the dense shrubs and small trees was primed for such a disaster.
"It would be nice to think, 'Well, let's just do a prescribed fire, and the forest will be all better for awhile,' but in a lot of cases, things are just too far gone," Parmenter says. "That's a lot of what happened with Cerro Grande: They were trying to do too intense a burn…in order to get fire to kill a lot of the young trees, especially in mixed conifer forests, you need to have a pretty intense fire. It's gotta be pretty hot, and then it gets dicey controlling it."
That's why prescribed burns are so tricky to carry out. Because excess fuel chokes so many forests in the Southwest, expensive, laborious thinning is often a necessary precursor to prescribed burns. Weather conditions further limit when and where forest managers can conduct controlled burns. Marla Rodgers, fire management officer for the Valles Caldera, says conditions have to be dry enough for a fire to ignite, but not so dry as to be dangerous. There must be sufficient wind to provide adequate ventilation and prevent the smoke from creating too much pollution, but the wind cannot be strong enough to let the flames get out of control. The ideal weather for a prescribed burn is also ideal for flying hot air balloons, but prescribed burns can't be done during the fall Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque because the smoke would affect balloon visibility.
"The weather has to be there; the manpower has to be there; the atmospheric conditions have to be there for smoke," Armstrong says. "It's a puzzle that has to be put together at the right time and the right place. If we had a huge amount of money, we could solve all those problems, but that's probably not going to
That perfect confluence of prescribed burning conditions has only happened once for the Caldera, in 2005. Santa Fe National Forest burns 15,000-20,000 acres per year, Armstrong says, but adds that, ideally, it would be 40,000-60,000.
Santa Fe National Forest receives about $2 million annually from the federal government for "fuel reduction," which encompasses thinning and burning. That funding got a bump from the National Fire Plan after Cerro Grande, and recently another one from the Forest Landscape Restoration Act. The newer law, which went into effect in 2010, added approximately $1.2 million in funding for thinning and prescribed burns for a 210,000-acre part of the Jemez Mountains that includes the Valles Caldera and Santa Fe National Forest. To obtain the funding, New Mexico competed against other landscape restoration projects across the country; so far, it has helped thin 1,600 acres. The funding is supposed to be renewed each year for 10 years and will enable the Forest Service to treat about 10,000 more acres each year than it previously could, reducing the cost of fire suppression in the area by about 50 percent, according to a report by the Southwest Jemez Mountains Collaborative Forest Landscape Program. But since it's a year-to-year appropriation, the funding renewal isn't guaranteed.
“That’s the way Congress solves problems: They devote a whole lot of money to it, and a year later, they kind of forget about it,” Armstrong says.
Even with the increased funding, the 1.6 million-acre Santa Fe National Forest will only be able to burn and thin a maximum of 25,000-30,000 acres per year—still far less than Armstrong estimates is necessary to maintain the forest. Areas need to be treated as often as every five years to keep fuel levels down, Armstrong explains, suggesting what a daunting task it is to restore the forest to anything like its natural state.
The recent legislation addressed funding levels, but it failed to deal with another problem: the lack of coordination between the various entities charged with managing New Mexico's forests. Although some US Forest Service and National Park Service land is adjacent, there's no formal arrangement that allows two agencies to cooperate on thinning and prescribed burns.
The only way the Forest Service can help out the Park Service with tankers during a prescribed burn, for instance, is to use an informal handshake agreement to provide reciprocal help.
"It just boggles the brain, but you can't pay other agencies," Rodgers says of prescribed burn projects.
The Forest Service also can't pay the fire crews from nearby Jemez Pueblo to help with prescribed burns.
"That might assist us, if we had that manpower to draw upon," Armstrong says.
That conflict points to the fundamental differences in the two agencies' missions that stem from their historical roles. The Forest Service is part of the US Department of Agriculture—hence the frequent use of Forest Service lands for grazing—while the Park Service belongs to the US Department of the Interior.
Though the agencies' missions often coincide, Ribe says they also compete for land and resources.
"You run into it all the time: One agency feels like the other one is incapable or screwed up in one way or another," Ribe says. "They're very jealous of each other because the Forest Service is always losing land to the Park Service."
Landmarks in US fire history
1871—Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin burned 3,780,00 acres, killing 1,200
1901—Forest fire suppression began
1910—Big Blowup fire in western Montana northern Idaho burned 3 million acres, killing 87 people
1935—Forest Service created “10 am” policy, mandating that wildfires be extinguished by 10 am the morning after they start
Rodriguez says the agencies may have a rivalry in Washington, but not on the ground in northern New Mexico, where they "don't share the political divides of politicians." Rodgers agrees.
"There might be friendly rivalries between stations, but no bitterness," she says.
At his jobsite in the Valles Caldera, Connelly, the thinning contractor, pauses to point out densely forested areas on Forest Service land a few hundred yards away. Until that land receives a similar treatment to the caldera’s, it will only amplify the area’s risk of enduring another massive wildfire.
Regardless of their disparate funding and management strategies, both agencies have an interest in continuing to promote tactics that work. Chief among them are prescribed burns—which, although difficult to execute safely, are unquestionably effective in preventing massive blazes such as Cerro Grande and Las Conchas. When Las Conchas came through last summer, it didn’t kill a single tree on the site of a 2005 3,000-acre prescribed burn in the preserve.
Fire managers observed a similar pattern at Bandelier: The areas that burned during Las Conchas were those that hadn't been treated with prescribed burns.
"There's a clear correlation between the places that were treated with prescribed fire and the severity of burning in Bandelier…the idea is, prescribed fire is an excellent way to prepare these forests for wildfire so that they don't burn too severely," Ribe, who is also a firefighter and has helped with prescribed burns at Bandelier for the past 10 years, says.
The US Forest Service manages 191 million acres of publicly owned land nationwide. In New Mexico, that includes Santa Fe National Forest (total 1.8 million acres), Cibola National Forest, Carson National Forest, Lincoln National Forest and Gila National Forest.
Another previous burn actually helped extinguish Las Conchas at the end of its 33-day run.
"The irony is, Los Alamos—at least the town site anyway, and a good portion of the lab—the reason that didn't incinerate is because of the footprint from Cerro Grande," Armstrong says. "The Cerro Grande fire, to a large extent, saved Los Alamos this time."
But that doesn't necessarily mean that Las Conchas will save the areas it burned from the next big fire. That will depend on many factors, including what grows back in the area and when the next fire hits.
Weather conditions are another important factor. A La Niña weather cycle caused last summer's drought; climatologists predict similar weather this year.
"If it's like last year, then we're going to be in that extreme danger situation where we have [the Pacheco fire in Santa Fe National Forest] and [the Wallow fire in Arizona] and Las Conchas and all these fires," Ribe says.
Armstrong says the weather pattern will affect the length of the fire season, but not whether it happens.
"Every year we have a fire season," Armstrong says. "Every year, because of the forest conditions, we have the chance for very hot, destructive fires." In a La Niña year, that season begins in May and lasts until August.
"My warning to all of us around here is: We could just be at halftime," Parmenter says. "In terms of forest fires here in the Jemez, next summer could be just as bad—if not worse—than the summer of 2011."
Las Conchas serves as yet another reminder that wildfire doesn't respect political boundaries; it raged through public, private and even sacred land across northern New Mexico. But despite the massive blaze's many negative effects, it also did, over the course of one month, what the federal agencies would have taken years of planning to accomplish: It burned down forests that were artificially thickened by more than 100 years of fire suppression, logging and grazing.
For the moment, evidence of Las Conchas' positive aftereffects abound. On SFR's recent trip to the Valles Caldera, numerous specimens of Abert squirrels—the long-eared, blackish-brown rodents that dwell only in healthy ponderosa pine forests—zipped up pine trees, tails held aloft. Turkey tracks crisscrossed the moist earth; turkeys need old, large trees in which to roost, and, like the Abert squirrel, are considered an "indicator species" of good forest health. And in a riot of green, new grasses sprang up in the fertile ash.
“As soon as those monsoons hit, you could see where the fire was because that’s where the green was,” Rodriguez says. “So green.” SFR