The Medio Fire burned for 28 days before the Santa Fe National Forest declared it 100% contained on Sept. 14. Santa Fe got lucky—only 4,010 acres in the mountains north of the city burned, and of those, only 100 acres burned at high severity.
But it wasn't just luck that brought the Medio Fire under control.
Collaboration, skill and strategy on the part of the crews that fought the fire influenced its path. And ultimately, the fate of the Medio Fire was determined by the footprint of two past events that marked the landscape around the area where lightning struck and started the blaze.
To the northeast lay the burn scar of the Pacheco Fire that tore through over 10,000 acres in the summer of 2011, burning trees to the ground in high-severity flames on half of the acres it touched. This summer, crews herded the new fire into the old scar, where there was so little left to burn that they let the fire smolder with confidence it would eventually go out on its own.
To the southeast, firefighters guided the flames into an area the forest service and its partners had treated with a prescribed burn last year. If it hadn't been for that deterrent, officials say, the Medio Fire could have swept all the way into the Santa Fe ski basin.
Now that the ashes are starting to grow cold, the work of restoring the damage and preparing for the next fire begins. The forest service is already considering how to safely conduct new prescribed burns this winter; a long-term strategy remains underway. Yet in the past, one of the greatest obstacles to prescribed burning in the Sangre de Cristos has been public opinion. Santa Feans who are vocal about the health impacts of smoke and wildlife advocates concerned about protecting the habitat of the Mexican spotted owl have thwarted some of the agency's previous treatment plans.
Whether the proximity and relative danger of the Medio Fire has swayed the public in favor of prescribed burns is yet to be seen. But Pueblo of Tesuque Gov. Robert Mora worries that communities in Santa Fe County do not take the threat of fire seriously enough.
Mora doesn't often speak with reporters; the tribe is incredibly private, rarely disclosing its business to outsiders. He agreed to meet with SFR to remind Santa Fe the prescribed burn that stopped the southern progress of the Medio Fire took a highly collaborative effort—one in which the Pueblo of Tesuque played an important role.
He says an even greater collaborative effort will be needed to protect this land, along with all of its human and animal inhabitants, from future catastrophe. He has an urgent warning he wants the public to hear: This effort requires action from everyone. And it's about time to get started.
The Course of a Fire
The day was hot and dry, and after an unseasonably hot summer without the usual monsoons, the forest was in the perfect condition to go up in flames. Within a few days, the fire outpaced local crews' efforts to suppress it and grew to over 1,000 acres.
Primary Operations Section Chief Eddie Baca arrived to take over command of the fire on Aug. 20 with the national Type 2 Incident Management team the local ranger district called in for backup.
In the summers, Baca travels across the country with the mobile Type 2 unit trained to battle high-complexity fires. His home during the off-season is in Grants, where he's the assistant fire management officer on the Mt. Taylor Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest.
Baca says he was surprised and worried to get called back into this part of the Southwest so late in the season.
"We shouldn't be getting fires like this in New Mexico in August," he tells SFR.
He says New Mexico's fire season usually starts in April and ends in July with the onset of monsoons, just as the fire season picks up in other parts of the country. Crews and equipment that were readily available in the Southwest in the beginning of the season had dispersed to fight fires in California and Colorado by the time the Medio Fire started.
"We were fighting this fire like we were in the middle of June, but without all the usual equipment," he says, telling SFR that early on he could not get as many crews or helicopters as he thought the fire required.
The steep and rocky terrain also added to the complexity of the fire, creating dangerous conditions for firefighters and impacting how flames spread.
"Fire burns fastest when it's moving uphill," says Baca. The steeper the slope, the easier it is for flames to catch a gust of wind and race up the slope through the treetops.
This dynamic was at play the day the Type 2 team arrived intent on keeping the fire between the Rio en Medio and the Rio Nambe. That afternoon, the fire traveled downhill into the Rio en Medio Canyon at a moderate speed. Then, in what firefighters call a "slope reversal," the wind picked up and carried the flames across the canyon, where it moved rapidly uphill and sped south towards the Pacheco Canyon.
Suddenly it seemed the fire might cross Pacheco Canyon Road (which becomes Forest Road 102 once it enters forest service land) and continue up toward the ski basin, possibly engulfing homes in Pacheco Canyon, tribal lands and beloved recreational areas in its path.
At the time, Baca believed the only option was to use the road itself as a fuel break to try to hold back the flames.
But the outlook for the fire began to change as crews scoped out the forest just northeast of the road—which had been treated by the prescribed burn and contained a fuel break along a ridge above.
Instead of bringing the fire down to the road, crews guided it along the ridge and eased it down the hills on the fire's west side by "backburning," a strategy that involves slowing a wildfire by lighting small, low-severity fires in its path to starve it of excess fuels.
Meanwhile, Jana Comstock, an archaeologist for the Santa Fe National Forest and cultural resource advisor for the Medio Fire, was busy documenting cultural sites in the area including everything from "prehistoric" Indigenous sites to groves of aspens that sheepherders marked with carvings generations ago.
SFR met Comstock along "the 102" where firefighters cleared the brush from a series of bridges built from hand-cut stone blocks in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp, a depression-era New Deal program that constructed much of the infrastructure still used in America's public lands today.
"Our main goal during an active fire is to limit the impacts of suppression activities on these resources whenever possible," Comstock tells SFR. She says the forest service has cultural, biological and recreational resource advisors who alert firefighters to values at risk before every prescribed burn and, when possible, during active wildfires.
At the helipad site near Nambe Falls, Lidiana Soto, a firefighter with the Santa Fe Helitack interagency wildland fire crew, and Dannell Begay, a helicopter manager with Navajo Region Helitack, tested a machine that drops ping-pong-sized balls of fuel starter.
"The mountain is too steep for the firefighters, so we need to bring the fire down to them slowly," Soto tells SFR. Begay says this machine was the only way to backburn in such steep terrain without putting firefighters at risk. National Guard helicopters carrying huge buckets of water from the Nambe Reservoir followed to help control the flames.
The strategy worked.
Fourteen days after the Type 2 team arrived, they turned the fire back into the hands of local crews and headed off to other blazing regions of the West.
This fire may have been comparatively small, says Baca, but it is a symptom of troubling trends facing firefighters all over the country.
"The season's been getting longer and the conditions have been gradually getting worse," he says. On top of that, he says, people are building more and more homes in the fringes of the forest, adding to the potential for catastrophe.
"Luckily that prescribed burn and that fuel break were there," he says, "otherwise we would have had a really hard time holding that fire back without it jumping that 102 road and threatening the rest of the values on the mountain."
A Tribal Perspective
Long before Santa Fe was christened "the City of Holy Faith" by Spanish Gov. Pedro de Peralta in 1610, it was known by the name "O'gah'poh geh"—the white shell place—to the Tewa speaking Indigenous peoples in the area.
The Pueblo of Tesuque recognizes O'gah'poh geh as part of its ancestral tribal lands along with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that rise up above both the Santa Fe skyline and the Tesuque Pueblo just miles north of the city, says Tesuque Gov. Robert Mora.
Tesuque owns two tracts of land in the mountains that are critically important to the tribe's cultural and religious activities, Mora tells SFR. The Medio Fire burned right up to the boundary of one area. The other was separated from the fire by the Pacheco Canyon prescribed burn.
"We were all holding our breaths watching that fire," says the governor. "When we got the word that [the prescribed burn] did stop the fire, we were happy that the plan worked, that it saved our land and that it saved Santa Fe."
The tribe played an integral role in facilitating the 2019 prescribed burn, which Mora highlights as a success. Yet in his conversation with SFR, he expresses a complex perspective full of competing emotions.
Pride for his tribe's contributions to the prescribed burn project and the Medio Fire response is part of it. But there's also a deep sense of frustration—the feeling of watching an impending problem emerge and having to wait for someone else to pay attention and respond—mixed with hope stemming from the successful collaboration of multiple stakeholders as the fire wore on.
Most of all, Mora expresses a sense of urgency.
"The bottom line is this is our cultural traditional place. We want to make sure everything is protected: the water, the land, the forest—everything," he says. "We must be proactive."
For generations, the tribe's ancestors used and managed fire in the mountains for their own ends and to maintain the health of the forest.
"We were told our elders used fire as a tool," says Mark Mitchell, a former pueblo governor and now a tribal historic preservation officer who joins Mora to discuss the fire with SFR.
"Back then men from our pueblo and others would go up and fight fire," Mitchell continues. "They picked up the brush that they could into piles and lit it—let the fire creep where it needed. The fire helps the vegetation, it helps stands open up and creates spaces for wildlife."
Last year, the tribe used Reserved Treaty Rights Lands funds to help pay for the Pacheco prescribed burn. That fund is part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs fuels management program that allows tribes to collaborate with other government agencies to complete projects on land bordering tribal reservations and trusts.
Tesuque sent crew members to cut the handline along the ridge used to rein in the Medio Fire, and sent experts from the tribe to advise the forest service on the cultural resources in the forest.
Yet, the tribe's forestry department's one fire engine and crew does not have the training or credentials it needs to independently deploy to the site of a forest fire outside of tribal land. The fate of the Pueblo of Tesuque trust lands are tied to the fate of the rest of the forest and the management decisions those agencies make.
Mora worries that there are many outside groups with narrow and conflicting interests that do not represent what's best for the tribe, surrounding communities or the forest itself.
In September last year, a Federal District Court Judge in Arizona ruled that the forest service had failed in its legal obligation to monitor the owl and ensure that forest treatments do not negatively impact the recovery of the threatened bird.
"That injunction hindered us from exercising our rights to forest mitigation," Mora says, explaining that it prevented the Pueblo of Tesuque from completing forest thinning projects around the pueblo itself as well as in its tribal trust land on the mountain.
Jon Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, tells SFR the injunction has been partially lifted and now applies only to projects in spotted owl habitat. The organization is in negotiations with the forest service to create more comprehensive monitoring and less invasive thinning standards in those areas.
Mora has concerns about how the forest service plans to rehabilitate the land, too. The tribe wants seeds from trees surrounding the Medio Fire to be collected so the area can be replanted with highly localized stock. The tribe's own seedbank, suggests Mitchell, could become a resource for storing seed and cultivating native saplings. Mora says he wants the tribe to be involved in the restoration work.
Mora also wants communities in the foothills of the Sangres to come together for brainstorming sessions about lessons learned from the Medio Fire, including how to better protect the forest and the people living in it from future fires. Above all, he stresses that residents and communities in Santa Fe County need to do more to protect private properties and public assets in wildland urban interface areas.
What Comes Next
After the Medio Fire died down, a US Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response team went in to assess the post-fire effects on the landscape.
BAER team member Andy Casillas says floods are the most serious threat after wildfire, especially in high-severity burn scars where flames seared the earth at extremely high temperatures, incinerating the ground cover and destroying the web of tree roots beneath the ground that holds the forest floor in place.
The extreme heat also changes the chemistry of the earth, creating a hard hydrophobic layer that repels water instead of absorbing it.
After high-severity fire, rainstorms can cause erosion and send highly destructive flash floods into communities and reservoirs while the burned ground remains parched, making it harder for vegetation to grow back, he says.
Normally, the team would assess threats to human life and safety and then complete a biological, cultural and recreational assessment to determine how resources and wildlife have been affected by the fire.
Due to the risks of COVID-19 and the personnel stretched thin responding to fires burning across the country, Casillas says the team only assessed the Medio Fire for conditions that could pose an immediate danger to nearby communities.
"We will be doing a second assessment prior to the monsoon storms next summer to see if there is additional work that needs to be done to protect natural resources, cultural resources or forest infrastructure," he says.
The threat of post-fire floods only underscores the need for prescribed burns, officials say.
The same day it declared the Medio Fire officially contained, the forest service announced it was considering immediate plans to conduct prescribed burns on more than 6,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest. Those plans are ready for launch as long as conditions including fuel moisture levels, air quality and forecasted weather are appropriate.
"Each prescribed burn is designed to meet specific objectives and will be managed with firefighter and public safety as the first priority," reads the announcement. "The SFNF will work with partners, collaborators and communities to clearly identify objectives and address concerns prior to implementing any prescribed burns."
The prescribed burns under consideration between now and the end of December include projects around Pecos, in the Santa Fe Watershed, and around the Borrego Mesa Campground just west of Truchas Peak.
Another 550-acre burn in Pacheco Canyon north of Forest Road 102 and west of the 2019 burn that slowed the Medio Fire, can only take place "pending resolution of the current court-ordered injunction related to timber management and the Mexican spotted owl."
But those plans just scratch the surface of the long game. After the Las Conchas and Pacheco fires in 2011, Tesuque Pueblo joined agencies and surrounding communities to talk about how to protect the region from catastrophic fire. These discussions led to the creation of the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project—a large scale, multi-agency plan to treat 50,000 acres of forest with thinning and or prescribed fire over the next 10 to 15 years. The plan is still in the draft stages, and a forest service spokeswoman says the environmental assessment will likely be ready for public comment by the end of the year.
Facebook comments at livestreamed updates about the fire indicate that while many people support prescribed burns after the success of the Medio Fire, others still oppose them based on concerns about smoke and destruction of spotted owl habitat.
Yet, the conservation groups that have spent decades in legal battles with the forest service over the spotted owl say the issue is much more complicated.
A co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona based group that also threatened legal action, Robin Silver says the perception that the owl's survival and the health of the forest are at odds is inaccurate.
"We need prescribed burns to restore the habitat of the spotted owl," he tells SFR. "Without prescribed burns a catastrophic wildfire could destroy the owl's habitat entirely."
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