Plumes of smoke rose from Pacheco Canyon earlier this month as the Santa Fe National Forest and partner organizations conducted prescribed pile burns, lighting up stacks of brush and small trees felled in a 2018 thinning project.

It's all part of a long-term fire treatment plan for the area. This fall the Medio Fire proved the effectiveness when fire lines from a previous prescribed burn held the wildfire at bay and stopped it from racing up the mountain toward the Santa Fe Ski Basin.

The biggest local lesson of the 2020 fire season showed the necessity of prescribed fire in preventing wildfires from becoming high intensity infernos that cause widespread destruction. Scientists and lawmakers in New Mexico are taking initiative.

New legislation being proposed across the West in the wake of 2020's terrifying fire season includes a bipartisan bill currently up for debate by the New Mexico Legislature that would make the use of prescribed fire more accessible to private landowners.

Meanwhile, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are studying how the future climate will impact ideal prescribed burn conditions. And they're developing tools that could help fire managers on the ground plan for even safer and more effective prescribed burns.

Still, none of this negates the alarm Santa Fe residents expressed on social media at seeing smoke on the horizon in the dead of winter when the pile burns began in Pacheco Canyon. After all, this is not when the forest usually burns. Even most prescribed fires are scheduled for early fall or spring.

Pile burns are an exception to the rule, says Rian Ream, prescribed fire and fuels technician for the US Forest Service's Española and Pecos ranger districts.

Unlike "broadcast burns," in which managers clear excess brush from the forest floor by lighting a fire line and carefully herding it along the ground in the direction they want it to go, pile burns are used for areas that have first been thinned by hand because they are too densely overgrown to safely conduct a broadcast burn. Managers wait to conduct the burn until there's snow on the ground so the fire is less likely to spread beyond the pile.

Ream says Santa Fe residents should expect to see smoke rising from Pacheco Canyon on and off for the next few weeks as the Pueblo of Tesuque and others in the area also conduct their own pile burn treatments.

Alex Jonko, a scientist at LANL engaged in both climate and fire research, says changes in the climate might lead forest managers to conduct many more burns in the winter in coming years—including the types of broadcast burns that are usually conducted in the spring and fall.

Jonko uses modeling to understand long-term trends in climate data and the kinds of changes that are likely to occur in the future. According to her most recent research, changes in temperature, humidity and wind speed will make the fire season longer and push the dates that offer the safest and most effective conditions for prescribed burns later into the fall and earlier in the spring.

Ream says increasing summer temperatures have not yet impacted when and how the forest service conducts prescribed burns locally, but notes that the wildfire season is getting longer.

"The Medio Fire was the latest that I've fought a big fire in the Santa Fe in my career," he says.

Rod Linn, a senior scientist at LANL, is working on a tool that could help forest managers better prepare for changing conditions.

Linn says changes in the climate, a century of fire exclusion that has led to dense, overgrown forests and the expanding wildland-urban interface all contribute to increasingly extreme wildfires and complicate prescribed burn efforts.

Linn is part of a team that's spent more than 20 years developing a super computing tool to analyze and simulate wildfire dynamics under countless different conditions. The program, called FIRETEC, is used by the Forest Service, the Department of Defense and other agencies.

Now, Linn is developing a second software tool, QUIC-Fire, that simulates prescribed burn dynamics in real time on a laptop computer and is designed to help the forest managers plan for safer and more effective prescribed burns.
"This is a way of giving them a set of tools they can use to explore and plan and develop those prescription windows," says Linn.

State lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are also thinking about how to increase the safe and effective use of prescribed fire to protect local communities and agricultural assets from destruction.

Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, and Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, are the sponsors of House Bill 57, the Prescribed Burn Act. The bill would make it easier for private landowners to conduct prescribed burns on their own property by clarifying liability issues and instructing the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department's Forestry Division to develop prescribed burn training, a prescribed burn manager certification program and a statewide permitting system.