Asked if we're at risk of a catastrophic fire here in Santa Fe, Porfirio Chavarria, wildland urban interface specialist for the city Fire Department, answered yes without hesitating.
"We're talking about a fire that would burn at intensities that would burn complete landscapes down to mineral soil," Chavarria told city councilors.
Chavarria was answering a question on Jan. 27 from Mayor Javier Gonzales, as the Santa Fe City Council debated before voting to officially designate the Greater Santa Fe Fire Shed as an area critical to the health and safety of city residents and a priority for efforts to reduce the ecological and economic threats of catastrophic fire.
During that meeting, Chavarria described a fire that could wipe out the forest surrounding the city, as well as homes and hiking trails on its eastern fringe and the watershed that supplies much of the city's drinking water. The organic layers on the forest floor—fallen pine needles, mosses and general nutrient base—would burn away, leaving only rock and sand. Snow and rainfall would then not be absorbed, but run off the bare soil, taking with it a river of debris and dirt.
Something like that happens in Black Canyon, Chavarria said, and the road to the ski basin could be totally wiped out and take two or three years to rebuild.
The official designation loops the fire shed into the 25-year Sustainable Santa Fe Plan and directs staff to find funding to support projects (though the fiscal impact report that's required when the city considers a policy has a box checked that says "no expected impact").
The key consequence of the resolution is that the city should see increased influence over federal, state and private dollars spent to manage the forests that directly affect the watershed and resident safety and recreation, according to the fiscal report.
"The point of it is to give the city a bigger voice and to show our cooperators that this is a priority area and stymie some of the resistance that may occur in some of these areas regarding project proposals," Chavarria said.
The city watershed, a sub-basin of the Rio Grande Watershed, has been protected since 1932 from human encroachment. In recent years, Forest Service personnel have undertaken major mitigation efforts like thinning and setting prescribed burns, particularly in the hillsides immediately surrounding the two reservoirs in the watershed. But past those boundaries, the city's say in how the forests are managed diminishes, as does management activity.
The next step will be a National Environmental Policy Act analysis of the acres of surrounding forests, which cover multiple jurisdictions, to assess current conditions, to evaluate the effect of a wildfire today or in even drier conditions, and to prioritize areas for management activity, Chavarria later told SFR.
"We only have NEPA [analysis] in the municipal watershed—which makes sense, it's a very high priority area—but the surrounding area, there's no NEPA and no treatment on the horizon," says Eytan Krasilovsky, southwest regional director for Forest Stewards Guild. "So there's still a lot of risk out there both to the watershed and all the other values, the downstream values of people living in Tesuque in valley bottoms and all our recreation and ecotourism resources. That's what I'm worried about."
The city joins state and federal partners in the National Wildfire Cohesive Strategy, a nationwide plan that focuses on creating resilient landscapes and fire-adapted communities and safer and more effective wildfire response. The state-level guiding document, the New Mexico Forest Restoration Principles, calls for reducing crown fires, restoring ecosystems and protecting watersheds and soil.
"What we're trying to do here at the city in our wildland division is to protect homes and health and safety of the public, as well as our firefighters when they do respond to these large fires," Chavarria tells SFR. "And anything we can do to minimize the risk is a benefit to our city and to our department."
In a slice of tree Krasilovsky carries with him, the number of times that tree burned and lived through a fire is recorded in the bark, like an autobiography written on the skin in scars. It's a story not only of individual resilience, but of the pattern of fire that landscape and ecosystem was made to endure.
"About every 10 years, we should be having some kind of fire," Krasilovksy says.
Fires have been shown to be a necessary for western forest health, but after nearly a century of government policies that called for wildfire suppression, forests have become over-crowded with trees, and that means if they do catch, they burn at higher temperatures and run out of control. The end result endangers homes, of course, but also the lives of wildland firefighters. In 2013, 31 firefighters died fighting brush, grass or wildland fires, including the 19 lost in one fire near Prescott, Ariz.
"A lot of times, we're not taking about restoration anymore.We're talking about resilience. So while we're going to be restoring these forests to conditions that more closely resemble the conditions they had in the past, we know the climate future is uncertain, and insects, prolonged drought and wildfire are in our future at some point, so we want to make these forests resilient to those disturbances," says Krasilovsky. "That's not a large change, we still are doing similar things, but we're thinking about the future differently."
From I-25 to Thompson Ridge, the forest stretches in one vast canopy, with a lot of potential ignition points, he says. A lightning strike there this summer, just by the grace of an unusually wet spring, avoided setting the whole strip of forest ablaze.
"In a normal year, that fire would have run up to the ridge and been throwing embers into the watershed," Krasilovsky says.
The Pacheco Fire went up Ravens Ridge in 2011, and the Tres Lagunas fire in 2013 made a run toward the upper part of the watershed—both were bullets dodged, he says, and a risk of fire equates to a risk to our lifestyle and economy. Downstream communities, like Tesuque, would be right in the newly defined flood plain. There's a huge amount of work to be done to prevent a crisis.
Chavarria says the situation is just as dire as it was in 2011 for Las Conchas, a record-setting blaze in which the first 44,000 acres burned in 13 hours, a rate of almost an acre per second.
"We have a similar forest, it's just on the other side of the valley," he tells SFR. "We have all the same elements that they had."
Ongoing rehabilitation from that fire is still visible in Los Alamos, as is damage from flooding in Bandelier National Monument's Frijoles Canyon, threatening the visitor center and museum and damaging trails and infrastructure.
A fire like that near Santa Fe would put structures in Tesuque and, for that matter, on Water Street, the historic path of the Santa Fe River before it was channelized, at risk of flooding. The reservoirs would be at risk of filling with sediment levels that could require closure to clean up. Hiking, biking and fishing spots would be blackened. A massive and costly effort to replant and reseed the forest, to restore the environment as much as possible, and rebuild lost infrastructure, would follow.
But the management tools likely to come into play include prescribed burns, and that issue draws a lot of ire and angry emails, councilors observed during the meeting. As Councilor Joseph Maestas said during the City Council meeting, the word "fire shed" just "lit up my constituents." The hope is that framing this "fire shed" designation as an effort to protect the city's water supply will cool some of that response.
In emails the councilor shared with SFR from some of those constituents, they question the science behind these choices and whose influence holds sway.
"The language of the resolution ('Fire Shed ... Critical to the Health and Safety of the Citizens of Santa Fe ... Ecological and Economic Hazards') implies that our watershed (there is no such thing as a 'fire shed') is a hazard to be feared and burned rather than what it is: a natural, healthy riparian zone rich in wildlife. Decisions like this one should be made based on reason and science, not a politics of fear and money," wrote Cate Moses, who is involved with Once a Forest, an organization that opposes prescribed burns. "Destroying our watershed by fire and calling it 'restoration' is Orwellian doublespeak, not science. … With the last two years' precipitation, our watershed is less likely to burn than it has been in decades. There is no science involved in the Forest Service's constant drumbeat warning of imminent catastrophic fire in our watershed. If no fire ignited there during our recent prolonged drought, why would one be more likely to ignite now? If it did ignite, why would the Forest Service not immediately put it out? Isn't that their job?"
She raised further concerns for wildlife that might be trapped by and killed in fire, and she added that prescribed burns would increase risk for erosion and air pollution.
Those who object to prescribed burns and argue that science is in disagreement about their efficacy point to a study by Mark Williams and William Baker. But what that research concludes is not that fire wasn't a part of the natural ecosystem in the American West, but that high-intensity fires were far more common than previously thought and may be necessary to resetting biodiversity. Milder controlled burns may not be enough to reset ecosystems and spur biodiversity, or prevent severe fires from following.
But a rebuttal from Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute that grouped responses from 18 forest ecologists disputed that conclusion, challenging that the researchers inaccurately inferred tree age from tree size, used a different standard for severe fires from the typical classification, and made "an unsupported leap in logic" in connecting tree diameters to previous fire severity.
The question of signing on for prescribed burns again goes to City council during its March 9 meeting.