While the 1988 fire at Yellowstone National Park stands today as an ecological success story, some scientists and forest managers say the Cerro Grande fire will be an ecological disaster.
"A fire is not some kind of lethal
poison where, if some place burns, it is ruined forever," says
Arizona State University fire ecologist Stephen Pyne. "What makes
it poisonous is the dosage."
The Santa Fe
National Forest got a heavy dose from the Cerro Grande fire. The
Forest Service estimates that the fire "crowned," or burned into
the treetops, on 25 percent of its 47,000 acres. These areas could
take several centuries to regenerate, according to Tom Swetnam,
director of the University of Arizona's tree-ring lab. Unlike
Yellowstone's lodgepole pines, which long ago adapted to crown
fires, Cerro Grande's ponderosa pines evolved with smaller brush
fires. When fire burns through the treetops, it destroys the
ponderosas' seeds, says Wallace Covington, director of ecological
restoration at Northern Arizona University in
The fire could cause long-term damage
to thousands of acres of habitat for imperiled species, Covington
says, including the Mexican spotted owl, the northern goshawk and
the Jemez Mountain salamander.
That's just the
beginning. With trees and low-lying brush stripped from much of the
land, biologists are bracing for what the U.S. Forest Service's
Bill Armstrong calls a "biblical-like" erosion threat as summer
monsoons scour the mountainsides.
could send tree branches and toxic and radioactive wastes from the
lab through the canyons that fan out around Los Alamos. These
canyons drain into New Mexico's largest river, the Rio
The threats have prompted federal
officials to import an ecological SWAT team to assess the damage.
More than 40 specialists in soils, plants, geology and hydrology
from Idaho to Arizona are combing the forest. They hope to quickly
write an emergency plan.
"The worst potential
damage to life and property in Los Alamos will come in the next 18
months," says Forest Service biologist Charles Jankiewicz. "The
soils will repel water on thousands of acres on steep slopes. They
will shed almost every drop of water."
everyone views this fire as a disaster for the
"The forest doesn't give a damn," says
Rex Wahl, director of Santa Fe's Forest Guardians. "It is always
going to be a forest. It will just be a different kind of forest."
Sam Hitt, the group's founder, says he found the
effects on the land to be "very positive" when he flew over the
area recently. "The tragedy was the way it went through Los
Alamos," says Hitt. "But what I saw was a typical fire, that jumped
ridge to ridge. It heated up some areas and cooled in others."