Prescribed Protection

Why fire holds the keys to securing fresh water and adapting to a changing climate

Fire's dependence on water flicks straight to the fore in a region like Northern New Mexico, where years of severe drought create high fire risk in summer months. But this year a wet, cold winter that aided the state through a fire season without a single blaze that raged past control raises the inverse question:

Does water depend on fire, too?

James Melonas, supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest, says fire is the greatest threat to access to clean, fresh water—and to Northern New Mexico communities' ability to successfully adapt to hotter, drier times to come. But fire, he says, is also the most important tool communities have for protecting vital water resources as the climate changes.

For the city of Santa Fe, which depends on forest streams for 40% of the average annual municipal water supply, safeguarding the Santa Fe watershed from destruction is critical to survival.

Even after the use of controlled burns and forest thinning projects within the watershed to reduce the potential impacts of an unplanned blaze, experts still consider it one of the most at-risk watersheds in the Southwest due to the high probability of fire in surrounding mountains.

Yet despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that prescribed burns reduce the chances of catastrophic wildfire, there are hurdles to burning, including residents who worry about affects to wildlife and the health hazards of smoke in the air.

It's fall now, when the aspens on the Santa Fe mountains change from green to gold and the temperatures tend towards the teens overnight. It's also when the Forest Service normally begins the fall season's prescribed burns.

But this year, the smell of smoke is absent.

A federal court ruling that found the Forest Service failed to comply with its own mandates to monitor populations of the threatened Mexican spotted owl has halted burning and thinning across the state until the agency can prove that its actions will not further endanger the small bird.

The lawsuit coincides with two important Forest Service plans. The New Mexico Forest Management Plan would dictate the regional approach to resources for decades to come. The Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project is a proposal aimed at protecting Santa Fe's watershed, the ski basin and homes in surrounding forested areas. Both rely heavily on prescribed fire.

Devastating wildfires which destroy every tree for hundreds of acres are becoming more common in New Mexico and across the West. At 156,000 acres, the 2011 Las Conchas fire in the Jemez Mountains was the most destructive wildfire in the state's history. It was surpassed in size and intensity just one summer later by the Whitewater–Baldy fire that burned around 300,000 acres in the Gila Wilderness.

Scientists predict that such fires will only increase in severity and frequency as the climate warms, lending urgency to the adoption of adaptive management policies.

The problem isn't only a changing climate. Forests are adapted to frequent, low-intensity wildfires, but a century of fire suppression policies have resulted in overcrowded forests burdened by decades of accumulated fuels. This creates tinderbox conditions for high-intensity wildfire to sweep across the landscape.

Some of the worst results of past fires in the region came after the flames had already been extinguished, when extreme floods pummeled small communities such as Santa Clara Pueblo.

Nearly 80% of the small tribal nation's forests have burned in the last three decades in three consecutive high-intensity wildfires that destroyed nearly half of the Santa Clara watershed. The flooding after the Las Conchas fire led the tribe to declare a state of emergency not just once, but five times in the three years following the fire.

The impacts of the Las Conchas fire on Santa Clara Pueblo offer both a sober warning of potential disaster and an example of how to recover.

A Warning Tale

At the beginning of the ascent toward the headwaters of the Santa Clara watershed, hillsides of ponderosa forest give way to scattered stands of surviving trees interspersed with the tall bare trunks of dead ones. This is how forests look after a fire that burns at moderate intensities, killing some trees but sparing others. As the climb goes higher, the number of living trees dwindles to nothing, and the landscape is dominated by masses of blackened spires casting their shadows across the bare rocky earth of the canyon—the casualties of a high-intensity inferno.

"Those first few years after the fire, it was like a moonscape out here," says Garrett Altmann, a geospatial/GIS coordinator with the Santa Clara Pueblo Forestry Department.

Santa Clara Forestry Department Director Daniel Denipah guides a large white pickup truck bearing Altmann and SFR up the dirt road, pointing out where erosion cut a 40-foot-high bank into the side of a hill, and other places where the tribe fortified creek banks and erected high metal nets across the widest gullies to stop rockslides from cascading down into the creek with the rain.

Within 14 hours of the first spark of the Las Conchas fire, over 44,000 acres were obliterated.

In areas where it burned hottest, the fire incinerated every living thing in its path, cooking the earth into a hard crust that repelled water instead of absorbing it the way forest earth should, and eliminating the layer of vegetation that helps hold the soil in place.

When the monsoons came, water thick with ash, debris and sediment thundered down the hillsides into the Santa Clara Canyon, breaching every one of the tribe's four dams and tearing up roads as floodwaters cascaded through the town. In Dixon, the flood poured into an historic apple orchard, taking down trees, fences and powerlines. In Cochiti, polluted sediments nearly filled the reservoir. And in areas where tributaries led directly to the Rio Grande, the river ran black, causing both Santa Fe and Albuquerque to cease pulling their water allotments from the river for a period of time.

"We'd put in some measures to anticipate monsoonal flooding after the last fire," Denipah says. "But there was no way we could have anticipated or prepared for the kind of flooding we had after Las Conchas."

Since then, the mitigation and restoration efforts accomplished with the help of FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and millions of dollars in aid have been impressive. But the most troubling results of the fire could linger for generations.

The canyon is of great cultural importance to the tribe, yet there's a whole generation of children who've grown up without ever stepping foot here, says Denipah, because the Army Corps of Engineers is only now in the process of declaring the area safe for civilians.

"For the tribe, this is their place, where they come to pray. This is where their songs and their heart is, and that's why it's so valuable, and you can't put a price tag on that," says Denipah. Going forward, the Forestry Department hopes to involve the community in restoring the canyon.

The tribe has adopted an aggressive prescribed burn strategy to prevent another catastrophic fire. Recognizing the vulnerability of tribal lands to management policies on surrounding public lands, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Forest Service have begun to allow tribal crews to thin and burn forests adjacent to reservation boundaries.

"We are doing these landscape-type of projects, and that might be scary for people, but it's important, because we have to. This is the only place we have, and we've got to protect it as best we can," Denipah says. "Our forests are out of balance. … Hopefully one day we can let wildfires burn across the mountains like they used to, but we need to help Mother Nature back into balance first."

Protecting What We Have

Walking along a trail in the Santa Fe National Forest to the site of a May controlled burn in Pacheco Canyon, the thickly wooded slopes and open ponderosa forests feel even greener and full of life after spending time in the Jemez. But this isn't what a healthy forest is supposed to look like, either, says Melonas, the forest supervisor.

The public is accustomed to seeing a forest strained by too much dense growth, the "ecological debt" from a century of removing fire from its essential role.

At the prescribed burn site, shrubs and the lower branches of tall trees are scorched reddish-brown, leaving upper branches green. Down the hillside, patches where the fire burned through to the canopy mimic the kind of "mosaic" forest structure created by natural wildfires, says Luke McLarty, the firefighter who managed this burn.

Ellis Margolis, a research ecologist with the US Geological Survey Jemez Mountains Field Station, has used tree ring and fire scar data from the forests around Santa Fe to estimate that historical fires in the dry ponderosa forest here happened frequently—every five to 25 years on average—and at low to moderate intensities.

The majority of scientists agree that using history as a reference for reintroduction of fire will improve forest resilience and has ecological benefits. That method has been used to make predictions and set policy dictating controlled burns in particular areas of the Santa Fe watershed.

But Margolis still thinks the likelihood of a high-severity fire in the national forests surrounding the watershed would put the city's water supply in peril.

Alan Hooke, the water resources analyst at the city's water division, says his department is working with USGS to model the potential impacts of different post-fire flooding scenarios on the storage capacity of the city's reservoirs, McClure and Nichols, and the integrity of the dams. He says the Office of the State Engineer's Dam Safety Bureau estimates if the dams breached, lives would be at risk as well.

"They are high risk dams … they were not built to stop a flooding flow," he says. "A lot of times you can expect at least 10-fold the amount and severity of water flows post-fire, and so that's the real threat."

He adds that Nambe Pueblo spent millions of dollars dredging its reservoir after forest fires in 2002 and 2011. "It would cost tens of millions for us to dredge our reservoirs, and millions more to secure water from other sources in the meantime," Hooke says.

Melonas agrees and puts the potential consequences in context.

"There's nothing more important, I don't think, in terms of the future of Santa Fe and the surrounding communities than our water," he says. "Almost one out of every two drops of water comes from the forest outside of Santa Fe."

Beyond that, an uncontrolled blaze could cause significant flood damage to infrastructure outside of the watershed, such as Hyde Park Road, and pose a direct threat to communities such as Nambe and Tesuque that are situated below mountain stream basins.

"It's a matter of scale," Margolis says, emphasizing that the size of recent high-severity wildfires far outstrips the area of the Santa Fe watershed. "The scale of the solution needs to equal the scale of the problem."

Melonas says forests adjacent to the watershed as well as the forests that support the city's outdoor economy, such as the ski basin, are the focus of the Santa Fe Mountains Resiliency Project that proposes thinning and burning treatments for 50,566 acres northeast and southeast of Santa Fe.

For Eytan Krasilovsky, deputy director of the Forest Stewards Guild, forest management policies also have social equity implications because the worst impacts of wildfires often hit small, rural communities that don't always get a say. Partly it's a matter of cost—prescribed burning costs less than post-fire flood mitigation, restoration and many of the measures proposed locally by opponents.

But Sam Hitt, a local advocate who opposes most prescribed burns, worries the Forest Service has not done enough to research how prescribed burns will impact wildlife and human health. Hitt concedes that prescribed fire and thinning is necessary around homes and reservoirs, but he believes society should "let wildfires do most of the work" in most areas and particularly in roadless wilderness.

Hitt's perspective is similar in many ways to the argument at the heart of the spotted owl lawsuit that has stopped the Forest Service from completing prescribed burns this year.

"You can look at a forest as a collection of fuels, or you can look at it as a diverse habitat," Hitt tells SFR on a hike near Black Canyon Campground. "We are not the masters over the forest. We really don't know what we're doing, and we've made a huge number of mistakes in the past, like mass spraying of pesticides and toxic chemicals and the clear cutting of old growth forests."

Yet catastrophic wildfires can impact entire ecosystems. In the Jemez, scientists are finding signs that forests might never grow back, converting to shrubby grassland instead. In these areas, unshaded streams run warmer, changing conditions for riparian habitats, and snowpack melts and evaporates faster, meaning less water remains in the system for plant, animal or human consumption.

But the aftermath of Las Conchas also shows that some aspects of the problem are not as bleak as once thought.

Reaching the end of the Santa Clara Canyon, Denipah shows off a marshy section of riparian habitat surrounded by a stand of conifer trees. It's a small sanctuary of intact forest, spared from the flames that devoured almost everything else in sight. It's also the heart of the tribe's ecological recovery efforts.

Santa Clara's flood mitigation, adaptation and restoration projects are breaking new ground. In collaboration with supporting organizations, the tribe has devised numerous innovative solutions to restore topsoil, bring back aquatic life, stop erosion and engineer infrastructure to hold up better in flood conditions. The example is being used as a model by the Army Corp of Engineers across the nation for how to recover from disaster.

Along the bank of the creek, two men from the tribe's environment department tell SFR that now, eight years after the fire, the creek ecosystem can once again support life.

Pride and subdued excitement are evident in all the men as they tell SFR about the discovery of small invertebrates in the water, a clear sign that the creek is healing. They have plans to reintroduce native cutthroat trout soon, maybe even in the next year or two, which would be much sooner than they could have ever hoped, one man says, his eyes bright with what's possible.

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