"It's all about backing fire downhill," says primary Operations Section Chief Eddie Baca as he points to a ridgetop above Rio en Medio. The spot is where crews are intentionally igniting the hillside from the top down to slow the Medio wildfire burning just past the ridge.

Baca, who works for the US Forest Service, is responsible for crafting the strategy firefighters are employing to keep the fire burning in the Santa Fe National Forest in check along its western edge. So far, things are looking good.

As of Wednesday night's public meeting, the fire had burned 2,939 acres and was 21% contained.

On Tuesday hand crews cleared a hand line to secure the western edge of the fire. They intend to backburn up to the line to stop the wildfire in its tracks.
On Tuesday hand crews cleared a hand line to secure the western edge of the fire. They intend to backburn up to the line to stop the wildfire in its tracks. | Leah Cantor

Yesterday, hand crews cut and dug a hand line in a wide crescent moon around the western flank of the fire and began lighting fire lines to remove dead leaves, branches and bushes from the forest floor to starve the wildfire of fuel. In the early evening, a plane dropped ping pong balls of fire starter to ignite the steep rocky slopes where it's too dangerous for firefighters to go on foot.

Things are going so well, in fact, that Baca can afford to take several hours off to escort me and a handful of other journalists and photographers past the "road closed" signs at the turnoff to Forest Service Road 102 and up toward the edge of the fire to get a closer look.

From his white pickup truck, he points up towards the large plumes of smoke rising from the other side of a deep ravine to demonstrate how the crews hope to guide the fire down the steep hillsides towards a midpoint where the land flattens out a bit and the vegetation transitions from ponderosa pine forests to slower, cooler-burning piñon and juniper.

A helicopter brings water to help crews stay in control as they intentionally ignite the forest along the west edge of the Medio Fire.
A helicopter brings water to help crews stay in control as they intentionally ignite the forest along the west edge of the Medio Fire. | Leah Cantor

Fire naturally burns more slowly if it's moving downhill and is much more likely to stay close to the ground leaving treetops intact, he says.  A fire moving uphill is unpredictable and dangerous. It can quickly catch a gust of wind and run up the hillside, gaining in speed and temperature as it goes and burning up into the canopies of the trees, destroying everything in its path and spitting up embers that can land as far as a quarter of a mile to a mile away.

"If you light a match and hold it upside down, the flame will quickly move up the matchstick and burn your fingers. If you hold it with its head up, it'll burn down slow and steady," he says. "A forest fire's like that too, just on a massive scale."

Just days ago, the crews were preparing to backburn all along the 102, with a strategy to bring fire right around the houses in the valley and burn up the lush oak and willow growth along the streambed to stop the wildfire from crossing the road and moving up toward the Santa Fe Ski Basin and tribal land trusts just to the south and west.

Crews were spared having to do this when they discovered a fuel break along a ridge north of 102 that had been put in place by the Santa Fe National Forest last year when treating an adjacent area of forest with prescribed burns. This week crews used the fuel break to begin backburning operations.

"That fuel break absolutely saved this road," Baca says, "and if it hadn't been for that prescribed burn area, this Medio Fire could've made it all the way up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin."

These “pumpkins” are 5000 gallon tanks put in place around a residence in Pacheco Canyon.
These “pumpkins” are 5000 gallon tanks put in place around a residence in Pacheco Canyon. | Leah Cantor

Baca's tour continued up 102 toward the area treated with prescribed burns in May 2019, stopping along the way to examine the sprinklers and 5,000 gallon "pumpkin" water tanks set up around a home in the Pacheco Canyon to prepare for any potential fire activity in the canyon, though Baca says at this point it's unlikely.

Engines and firefighters are stationed at the other homes in the canyon.

Rian Ream, one of the men who conducted the 550 acre prescribed burn in 2019, meets us further up the road at a point where the wildfire descended to the edge of the prescribed burn area. Ream conducted the burn as part of the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project—a long-term endeavor by the Forest Service to treat a large swath of land in the area with prescribed burns and thinning in order to improve the health of the forest and protect treasured recreation areas and tribal lands.

When the wildfire hit the prescribed burn area, there was not enough fuel for it to burn out of control. Firefighters were easily able to use the prescribed burn area to control the wildfire and guide it down along hand lines towards the bottom of the hill, says Ream.

"I don't want my kids to grow up to see nothing here but brush oak and black sticks on these hills; I want them to see trees and wildlife," he tells SFR , explaining that though fires should naturally occur every five to ten years, fire suppression policy stopped fires from passing through most of this forest for the last 100 years. Now the forests are overgrown and dense with dry fuel that creates dangerous wildfire conditions. "Prescribed burns are the greatest tool we have to protect the forests at this point," he says.

Where the fire brushed up against the road, only the forest floor is charred. It would be easy to drive by and barely notice that any fire had happened here at all—the tops of the trees are still green, and even some of the scrubby oak on the ground remains untouched between small piles of ash. In the prescribed burn area, trees have open spaces between them, and while some branches that burned last year remain red and deadened, the trees themselves are still alive.

"We've been on the defense in fighting forest fires for so long," says Ream. "With projects like this we really can be on the offense. The long term goal is to get the forest back to a place where low intensity fires are a regular part of a healthy ecosystem."

Crews cleared a hand line that separates the 2019 prescribed burn area to the right from the subdued flames of the forest fire to the left. Though both sides have burned, both are still green and alive.
Crews cleared a hand line that separates the 2019 prescribed burn area to the right from the subdued flames of the forest fire to the left. Though both sides have burned, both are still green and alive. | Leah Cantor

This kind of low intensity burn is exactly what the crews hope to ignite all along the western edge of the fire, says Baca on the way back. It's very different than the acres upon acres of barren, black and ashy hillsides in the Rio en Medio drainage where the fire burned hottest. He shows me a video he took on his iPhone from a plane as he flew over the fire on the first day he arrived on scene with the type 2 team. The sight of so much blackened land as seen from above comes as a shock after watching tame little flames smolder beneath still-green oak brush off the 102.

Baca reassures me that this type of destruction is likely over for this particular fire. The Forest Service has an interactive map that shows the fire progression here. He says he expects crews will add at least another 1,000 acres of controlled backburn to the overall acreage of the fire. But if it looks anything like the fire line where the Medio Fire kissed the 102, in time it might hardly bear a scar.

Leah Cantor