Wildland Thinning

Three-year project in Aztec Springs aims to protect Santa Fe’s watershed by reducing wildfire fuel

This year’s fire season in Northern New Mexico has been calmer than Nathan Miller and his team anticipated.

“In state, it’s been pretty quiet,” he tells SFR.

But the Santa Fe Fire Department wildland fire superintendent is also responsible for responding to calls from across the state and the country for additional crews and resources, meaning the city’s needs aren’t the only stressors.

“We’ve been as far as Idaho, California, Montana” this summer, Miller says.

With a relatively mild fire season, Miller has the luxury of time—he can focus his crew’s efforts on preventative strategies to stave off future wildfires. Aztec Springs, an area one mile north of Two Mile Reservoir, is the site of a thinning project that the city started years ago to reduce hazardous fuels that exacerbate wildfires.

The treatment area covers 150 acres adjacent to both the city and Santa Fe National Forest. The Aztec Springs project initially had an April 2021 deadline, but restrictions put in place during the pandemic stopped the city from meeting that cutoff.

“I don’t like goals being set and then not completing them,” Miller says. “Obviously things do happen and we were unable to fulfill those obligations by that time. So that’s when I decided we’re gonna take it on and we’re gonna request the approval for the extension and move forward with it.”

On Aug. 25, the City Council unanimously extended the deadline for the thinning project until Dec. 31, which will enable the city to finish working on the remaining 49 acres in Aztec Springs, an area of land just east of the city owned by The Nature Conservancy.

Due to COVID-19 social distancing mandates, Miller explains, it was difficult to complete the scheduled cutting and clearing. He says the restrictions prevented crews from working in close contact, a necessity for the job.

“It’s not worth the risk of the unknown without being able to social distance properly,” he continues. “It wasn’t an emergency situation, let’s just put it that way, unlike when we have to go out to fight fires.”

The city secured $286,000 in an initial 2018 contract with the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. Funding for the thinning project came from a Non Federal Lands grant provided by the USDA Forest Service to target hazardous fuels reduction.

The thinning, Miller explains, reduces the amount of fuel in the area that can cause wildfires to grow in intensity by climbing from the forest floor to the canopy. By removing “ladder fuel” from the Aztec Springs area, Miller hopes to prevent crown fires—events that burn extremely hot and are difficult to control—from claiming an area that lies next to the city’s watershed.

Wildfire in the area that’s about 1 mile from Nichols Reservoir and 3 miles from McClure Reservoir poses risk of contaminating part of the city’s water supply.

Clay Benton, Bernalillo District timber management officer, tells SFR Santa Fe County designated Aztec Springs as a high-treatment priority area in the county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

“This particular prescription was designed to reduce fuel loading and thin overgrown ponderosa pine, piñon pine, and one-seed juniper,” Benton writes to SFR in an email. “Particular attention is being paid to areas on steep slopes where wildfire has increased potential to move quickly, or run uphill.”

In addition to reducing risks of “uncharacteristic wildfire,” Benton writes, prescribed “thinning is an effective method of restoring an ecosystem from the departure of the natural fire regimes we used to see up to 100 years ago.” He expands on the benefits, citing the increased availability of resources (soil, water, air) for the remaining trees.

The seasonal crew Miller’s team is working with, hired by the city every year for the last decade, will be available to cut hazardous fuels in an area rated as “high risk due to overstocked forest, high public use, on-going drought and proximity to wildland urban interface,” the initial contract between the city and the state reads.

With the additional support of the seasonal crew, which stays on until Oct. 1, Miller has the goal of thinning more than 10 acres a week, which should put the city on track to meet its new deadline.

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