Keepers of the Flame
GILA NATIONAL FOREST, New Mexico — In April 2003, a thunderstorm built over southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range. Clouds darkened the skies above soft-shouldered hills and steep canyons covered by dense thickets of juniper and piñon pine and galleries of tall ponderosa pine. Sometime around 2:00 in the afternoon, lightning struck on Boiler Peak, northwest of Truth or Consequences. The blast shattered a 60-foot-tall ponderosa, and flames flickered into life amid the splinters.
The Boiler Fire, as it came to be known, spread through the open parks and woodlands, slowly at first, but then with increasing strength. Within a month, it had burned across some 20,000 acres.
We’ve become accustomed to seeing wildfire as a horrific force. On television, it thunders through Western forests like an angry King Kong, devouring towns for breakfast, swatting aside slurry bombers like so many gnats. Wildfire is the summer blockbuster, the monster movie that is guaranteed to rivet our butts to the theater seats.
Yet reality on the ground in the Gila was something entirely different. When I visited the Gila in May — the first of several visits I would make to the forest over the next year and a half — the fire was still burning, but I found no drama, no threatened towns, no camera crews or reporters.
Through the haze, I could see wavelets of flame moving across a tawny meadow. Heavy pieces of deadfall smoldered. Fire shimmered up the thick bark of a few ponderosas. Smoke curled out of holes in the ground where small trees had been reduced to ash right down to their roots.
No planes. No water trucks. No yellow-shirted, be-helmeted firefighters in the middle of some dramatic moment of triage. Not a soul in sight.
Just smoke in the air and fire moving around in the grass.
When I caught up with Black Range Fire Manager Toby Richards, he was relaxed and low-key. One of his crews had just cleared a fire line to contain a small flare-up, and everyone was gathered in a circle. Some firefighters took off their helmets to wipe sweaty, soot-smeared foreheads. Others were passing around a bag of chewing tobacco.
Around us, the fire inhaled as it searched for carbon chains to unravel among the piles of needles and logs. Walkie-talkies and nearby truck radios sputtered in short bursts of static.
I asked the crew how intense this fire was, on a scale of one to 10. After a long silence, someone leaned outside the circle to spit. Richards, a bearded 37-year-old, cleared his throat.
" ‘Ten’ is battling the blazes in the urban-wildland interface, dude. That’s like Rodeo-Chediski," the devastating wildfire that burned over 400 structures and scorched a record 462,614 acres in Arizona the previous year. "This is like… a ‘one.’ "
And yet this low-key fire in the middle of rural New Mexico had huge implications for the national firefighting juggernaut. When it finally stopped smoldering in late August, the Boiler Fire had burned 58,000 acres — roughly 90 square miles. Meanwhile, on the Gila’s neighboring wilderness district that same summer, another fire, the Dry Lakes Complex, covered 98,000 acres — the third-largest fire in New Mexico history.
What was remarkable about these fires was not the acreage they burned. The remarkable thing was that the Forest Service didn’t try to stop them. While the federal government spent $1.3 billion in 2003 putting fires out, the Gila National Forest quietly moved forward with a program it began almost three decades ago — allowing fire to return to its natural place on the land.
Welcome to the world of "Fire Use." It may not be as sexy or sensational as the massive, hard-fought fires that torch towns and occasionally claim lives. But with billions of tax dollars consumed annually on suppression tactics, even as land managers struggle to restore natural fire to the landscape, Fire Use might be the most promising land-management technique Western forests have ever had.
Flash back to 1975, when a young fire manager named Lawrence Garcia was riding through the Gila Wilderness Area on horseback with his boss, Don Webb, the Gila’s fire management officer. Garcia recalls that both he and Webb were concerned about the dense, dog-haired and flammable thickets of trees that flanked both sides of the trail.
"I remember saying to Don, ‘How are we going to deal with all these trees? We’re not going to log them, not in a wilderness area,’ " Garcia says today. "Don turned to me and said, ‘We’re going to do it with fire. And you’re going to write the plan.’ "
Just 22 years old at the time, Lawrence Garcia wrote one of the nation’s first fire-management plans, basing his ideas about what the forest needed on his observations as a firefighter. He wrote the plan as the nation’s view of fire was in a period of rapid change.
As far back as the 1960s, land managers had recognized that forests without regular fires were increasingly explosive when they did burn, and that fires were the key to healthy watersheds, especially in the Southwest. In 1968, the National Park Service had adopted a policy known as "Prescribed Natural Fire," which allowed the agency to manage rather than suppress natural fires, within certain limits. The Forest Service had followed suit in 1972.
But having a policy and putting it to work in the forest are two different things. Prescribed Natural Fire conflicted with another agency rule, the "10 a.m. policy," which held that fire managers were obligated to control all fires by 10:00 the morning after they ignited (HCN, 4/23/01: The Big Blowup). In the trenches, Prescribed Natural Fire also bumped up against the firefighting rank and file, who tended to view wildfire as dangerous and unmanageable.
So it was no surprise that on the Gila, Garcia was cautious. His plan allowed the agency to manage natural fires only in wilderness areas, and only after the summer monsoons had dampened the forests, ensuring that any fires would be relatively docile and small.
For the next 20 years, Garcia and his crew learned to deal with natural fire on a modest scale, with a few thousand acres burning each summer. Garcia kept a diary, and tinkered with the plan as he watched fire work. He also had the foresight to bring in researchers, including a young student named Tom Swetnam, who had worked for two years as a seasonal firefighter for Garcia and was starting a graduate program at the University of Arizona’s Tree Ring Laboratory in Tucson.
Swetnam looked at the annual growth rings and fire scars in ponderosa pine trees and found a detailed history of fire on the Gila. His research provided clues about where the forest’s fire program needed to go if it was going to return to something resembling a natural fire regime. The tree rings showed that historically, fires had burned broadly on the Gila every four to eight years — and that they’d burned in the spring, the driest time of the year.
Garcia says he had already been turning over in his mind the notion of managing larger, hotter spring fires. But his boss, Don Webb, wasn’t ready to make that leap. Yet.
"I remember talking to Lawrence (Garcia) and Don (Webb), and telling them that they needed to allow these fires in the spring, when nature did," says Swetnam today. "Don turned to me and said, ‘Well maybe so, but we ain’t gonna do that.’ "
Convincing land managers — to say nothing of the general public — that it was a good idea to let forests burn, and burn hot, would be a tricky business.
"The early pioneers of Fire Use were regarded as nothing less than fringe lunatics," recalls Tim Sexton, currently the Fire Use program officer for the U.S. Forest Service. "And even into the ’70s, it was seen as heresy by some to let things burn — a violation of our creed as firefighters."
Early conflagrations — such as the 1979 Independence Fire, which burned for two and a half months on Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest — slowed things down, too. "We almost burned down a ranger station," says Charlie Elliott, who spent 27 years on the Clearwater before transferring to the Gila in 2003. "It was a fire that started on July 4, and normally, we didn’t let fires start that early in the season."
The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 were the most notable Prescribed Natural Fire event of this period. The spectacle of those fires blazing across 793,000 acres in the crown jewel of the national park system, broadcast on television screens across the country, brought on a tremendous backlash against those who had invoked the policy. Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, R, called for the resignation of Yellowstone Park Superintendent Bob Barbee.
The Forest Service’s funding structure also encouraged ambivalence. Fire-suppression funding was distributed annually from an ever-growing pot of funds, sanctioned under the rubric of disaster relief. Local managers who used Prescribed Natural Fire tactics, in contrast, paid for it out of their own program budgets.
This meant that any managers who wanted to increase the gains made by natural fires had to be creative. On the Gila, managers sometimes used a so-called "containment strategy," in which fires were surrounded and allowed to burn within a given area. Forest Service rules say a containment strategy cannot be used for ecological reasons; its main rationales are to conserve money or protect firefighters. Nonetheless, it allowed the Gila to let fire revisit the landscape without draining its coffers.
"What we were saying to ourselves then, though not publicly, was, ‘Hey, the watersheds don’t know the difference,’ " recalls Paul Boucher, the current fire staff officer for the Gila.
The result was that, within 20 years, the 900,000-acre wilderness district, which includes the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas, saw fire over 60 percent of its area at least once. Some areas burned as many as three times. With many of the thirsty trees out of the way, the watersheds rebounded. "In some cases, we saw springs flow again that hadn’t run in quite some time," says Boucher.
This kind of dramatic rebirth in the forests ushered in a new generation of managers who wanted to push wildfire management even further.
Toby Cash Richards was raised on the northern border of the Gila National Forest in the remote town of Reserve. "During the day, 10 minutes wouldn’t go by without a truck full of logs going through the center of town," Richards recalls. "I liked to hunt and hike. I wanted to be a logger."
But just as Richards graduated from high school in 1985, Catron County underwent an enormous transformation. The local logging industry crashed, and the county became a battleground over the threatened Mexican spotted owl. The number of mills in the area dwindled, and in 1990 the shutdown of the Stone Forest Industries’ sawmill in Reserve — a real as well as a symbolic blow to the community — turned the area into a hotbed for the sagebrush rebellion (HCN, 6/24/96: Catron County’s politics heat up as its land goes bankrupt).
Richards went away to college in Las Cruces, where he majored in education, and spent several years in Truth or Consequences, teaching second- and eighth-graders. But he kept his connection with the Gila, returning each summer to work as a seasonal firefighter. In 1995, he hired on full time with the Black Range District. His timing couldn’t have been better.
In the early 1990s, two things had changed the way the Gila dealt with wildfire. One was that Gila managers rewrote their fire plan to allow fires earlier in the season, before the monsoon cycle had started, thus paving the way toward larger managed fires.
The Gila immediately saw results. The Bonner Fire, which started in May 1995, burned for six weeks and covered 27,000 acres in the wilderness. In some places, the fire climbed into the forest canopy and killed trees, and in others it merely moved along the forest floor, clearing out deadfall. It left behind a mosaic of new meadows, making room for aspen trees, bunchgrasses, forbs, currants, wild roses and raspberries that had been choked out by decades of pine needles.
"To many people, those blackened trees are symbols of death," says Paul Boucher. "What they don’t see is the hundredfold increase in species diversity that follows a fire."
The other shift was national: In 1995, the Agriculture and Interior departments retired the Prescribed Natural Fire policy and established a new one called Wildland Fire Use for Resource Benefit — or "Fire Use" for short. The 1995 National Fire Plan made the restoration of wildland fire a national priority, placing it second only to human safety. And equally as important, it spurred a change in the way wildfire management was funded. Unlike the old policy, Fire Use could draw its funding from the deep pockets of the national fire-suppression budget. Because its application was limited to the few national forests with a fire plan in place, the new policy brought a stream of money to forests such as Gila.
The Gila was poised to take its fire strategy forestwide, and Toby Richards was the perfect guy to help make it happen. From the seasoned line officers on the Black Range, Richards had learned techniques and practices for prescribed fires, which are set intentionally. He worked on forest-thinning projects around private land and adjacent to towns. And during fire season he traveled to big suppression fires across the country, working side by side with some of the best Type I commanders in the Forest Service. (Type I commanders are the cream of the crop, capable of handling the trickiest, most dangerous fires.) This gave Richards a feel for fire, from understanding risk assessment and firefighter safety to using terrain and man-made barriers.
"He worked on a helitack crew, on an engine crew, as a hot shot," says Lawrence Garcia, who now works on the Santa Fe National Forest. "You know, we say in order to be a good fire manager, you have to breathe a lot of smoke. Toby’s breathed a lot of smoke."
As a practice, Fire Use also appealed to Richards’ native love of working in the woods, as well as his sense that the land needed to be brought back into balance. He had absorbed many of the lessons of fire ecology firsthand, in the same woods where he grew up hunting and fishing. "A lot of times, you go out to an area that’s seen fire, even two weeks later, and you can see the green plants coming up through the black," he says.
By the time Richards took over as fire management officer for the Black Range in 2001, the district had seen plenty of fire — over 50,000 acres of prescribed burning, and 10 Fire Use fires, ranging in size from a few hundred acres to over 10,000. The Black Range was ready for something big.
In April 2003, when Richards learned about the Boiler Fire, he immediately saw it as a good candidate for Fire Use. The ignition point on Boiler Peak lay in the midst of a patchwork of forest that had been burned by numerous smaller fires in previous years. Roads crisscrossed much of the country, making it easy to work in.
But the district had never managed a fire so early in the season, and Richards recognized that this one could get large. "When you start in April, you’re looking at three, even four months of management," he told me. "A lot can happen in that time. You gotta be able to stay two weeks ahead of the fire."
Richards watched the fire closely, monitoring the weather, anticipating the areas where it would find fuel and become active. The Black Range crew defined the perimeter of the fire by burning a fire line around the outer border of where it was allowed, something known in Fire Use parlance as the Maximum Manageable Area. Within the perimeter, they protected archaeological ruins and headed off the fire when it moved toward an area where a local rancher grazed his livestock. They pre-burned dense stands of spruce and fir trees to protect critical nesting habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, working in the cool of the evening, backing fire down slopes with drip torches.
"Fighting fires, you learn how to move them around, how to herd them, and how to keep them from getting into places you don’t want them to go," Richards said.
At times, the Black Range crew merely monitored the Boiler Fire and worked on other projects. At other times, when the fire became more active, Richards brought in crews from as far away as California and Oregon. "When things are really happening, you can be managing a fire over here, and putting one out over there, and lighting one somewhere else," Richards said.
Richards is quick to credit his superiors, his crew and his many mentors for the Fire Use successes on the Black Range. "It takes a whole group on the same page to do this kind of thing," he says. But those who work with Richards insist that his skills as a fire manager are remarkable.
"Toby’s the quarterback," says Mark Hedge, a teacher from Truth or Consequences who works summers in one of the Black Range lookout towers. "It’s amazing to sit up in the tower and listen to the radio traffic when a fire is really cooking. It’s like a football game. And Toby’s in the middle, holding it all together."
On the Boiler, Richards and his crew used the traditions of teamwork and safety handed down from the fire suppression establishment. But the ethos of Garcia and Webb was there as well. The Black Range crew allowed the fire to burn wherever and whenever possible, and used the powerful, expensive tools of suppression only sparingly.
One morning at a briefing, a crew boss told about visiting a site where air tankers had dumped a huge amount of slurry on a small fire. Richards used the story to make a point: "We may throw a load of retardant before someone gets there to slow something down," Richards said. "But we’re not gonna load and return, load and return, load and return and spend $50,000 on slurry, for a 10-acre fire. So I want you incident commanders to be careful with the slurry, so I don’t get my ass chewed out."
The Boiler Fire burned for five months, and by the time it fizzled out in August, it had become the largest Fire Use fire ever to burn outside of a wilderness area. In the end, Richards and his superiors deemed it a success. It killed tiny seedlings invading open parklands, reduced logs and deadfall to ash, and torched out small areas of young matchstick pine trees in what would become new meadows.
By effectively managing fire within the Mexican spotted owl nesting areas, Richards says the district strengthened its relationship with the Fish and Wildlife Service. And a team of young firefighters learned how to use fire as a restoration tool.
But perhaps the most remarkable success could be seen in the Boiler Fire’s cost. In the realm of "fuel treatment," prescribed fire can run $100-$200 per acre on average, while suppression fires cost at least $500-$600 an acre. Thinning trees with chain saws and other mechanical equipment tops the list at $1,000 or more for every acre treated.
Managing the Boiler Fire cost taxpayers just $1.30 per acre.
In 2003, a record 330,000 acres were allowed to burn under Wildland Fire Use nationwide. Close to half of those acres were on the Gila National Forest.
A handful of other forests, mostly in the Northern Rockies, put the Fire Use policy to work. But only one program besides the Gila’s — on the Clearwater-Nez Perce national forests in Idaho — practices Fire Use on a landscape level outside the relative safety of wilderness areas. Ken Stump, the acting fire management officer for the Clearwater-Nez Perce Fire Zone, says 2003 was a busy year for him, too. No less than 12 teams were on his forests, managing 41 fires. Stump says that Fire Use and containment strategies saved upwards of $25 million on his forests that year.
One wonders why this success story hasn’t been more widely repeated, or why the Forest Service doesn’t spend more than a fraction of 1 percent of its annual firefighting budget on Fire Use. Most of the money still funnels into the federal suppression machine, which, since 2000, has spent an average of $1.3 billion annually (HCN, 5/26/03: A losing battle).
For an answer, one need look no further than the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, where a prescribed fire escaped from Bandelier National Monument and torched hundreds of houses in Los Alamos, N.M. (HCN, 6/5/00: More trouble waits in the wings). Black eyes such as these are still vivid in the collective memory. And while many citizens might have an abstract appreciation for the notion of fire in the woods, they don’t want to breathe smoke. Add to that the protection of endangered species habitat and private property, and the extra public outreach and hard work required to manage a fire for months during the most volatile part of the year, and it’s easy to see why many managers are more comfortable calling in the air attack to put a fire out.
"Most people don’t have the intestinal fortitude," says Steve Servis, a retired fire management officer for the Gila. "And believe me, when you’ve got a fire burning out there in the middle of fire season, and you wake up in the middle of the night to find your window curtains sticking straight out from the wind, it sends a chill down your neck."
"It’s all risk and no reward," agrees the Gila’s Paul Boucher. "Because you know that if something goes wrong, the bean-counters and the witch-hunters are going to come down, and somebody’s going to lose his job."
Boucher looks forward to the day when the pressure points are reversed. "Things have to change to where line officers are held accountable for not implementing Fire Use — where people are held accountable for going into suppression mode," he says.
But spreading Fire Use Westwide means confronting the fact that fire burns differently in the dozens of different forests in the region. What has worked in one type of forest won’t necessarily apply elsewhere (HCN, 7/7/03: As fires rage, governors counsel discretion). Southwestern ponderosa pine forests burned frequently, with low-intensity fires. Other forests, such as the lodgepole pine forests throughout the Rocky Mountains and the Douglas-fir forests along the West Coast, burned infrequently — but often burned to the ground in "stand-replacing fires." Many forest ecologists caution that working in large areas of unbroken forest where stand-replacement fires were the norm may prove tricky.
Norm Christenson, a forest ecologist at Duke University, is enthusiastic about the progress in places like the Gila, where he says the topography and structure of the land lends itself to fire management. But he cautions that in other forest types, and in areas that are more populated, Fire Use gets dicey.
"Southern California is not a good place for Fire Use," Christenson says. "The conditions are so volatile that there are hardly ever the right circumstances to allow a (Fire Use fire), or even a prescribed fire. The liabilities are just too great."
Jerry Franklin, a forestry professor at the University of Washington, worries that big old trees could also go up in smoke. "It might be the natural thing to do, but we could lose the last remaining remnants of old-growth forest in the Northwest," says Franklin. "The bulk of our Western landscapes aren’t in the kind of shape where we can let any (wildfire) do its thing."
Even historian Stephen Pyne, a self-described "pyromantic" who has spent the better part of his career arguing for more fire on the landscape, has some reservations about how widespread Fire Use can realistically get. He’s concerned that where fire was once viewed as evil, some people now think it can do no wrong. "We don’t want to invert one fire fundamentalism for another," he says.
But the Gila's shift in policy has hardly been driven by fundamentalism. The nation as a whole puts out 99 percent of its fires, while the Gila still puts out 98 percent on average. Still, over time, that 1 percent difference has amounted to a tremendous shift in forest ecology and fire behavior.
Tom Swetnam, the tree-ring scientist, says the severity of fires on the Gila has been relatively mild as a result of Fire Use. "The Gila stands out," he says. "Virtually all the other large landscapes of the Southwest have had massive blowouts. I mean, you can go to where the Cerro Grande Fire burned, and find areas of 6,000 acres where there wasn't a single living thing left."
For his part, veteran fire manager Lawrence Garcia believes natural fires can be managed in almost any area, provided that the program is developed with the modest, patient approach he used 30 years ago on the Gila. He says the key is to protect communities and homes by thinning trees and clearing brush. Managers also need to break up the forest into a mosaic with small Fire Use and prescribed fires, he says, so that when it does burn, it doesn't all go at once.
"You just gotta start slow," Garcia says.
Early one afternoon in June 2004, Toby Richards and I drive toward Emory Pass on the southern end of the Black Range District. He shows me the small town of Kingston, where part of his crew has been thinning piñon and juniper trees with chain saws and burning slash piles to reduce the risk of losing houses to a forest fire. It's an expensive project, but it's an important piece of Richards' plan to deal with the last 20 percent of the district that hasn't seen significant fires.
Near the pass, Richards points to a small reddish-brown blotch in the otherwise green forest canopy. Lightning had sparked a fire there a few weeks earlier, but rather than let it burn, he'd called in an air attack and a Type I crew from Prescott to put it out. The Gila forest supervisor called him onto the carpet to explain his decision-making. "We couldn't afford to let that one go," Richards says. "We weren't ready."
This part of Richards' district is different from what I'd seen to the north. The canyons leading up to the ridgeline are deeper, and filled with dense stands of ponderosa and other conifers. It's a tinderbox waiting to blow. I realize that Richards was lucky this fire hadn't gotten away. I look back toward the town of Kingston, wondering if a fire in here would blast right through the thinning work his crew has done.
"How are you ever going to deal with this?" I ask. "There's so much fuel in there."
Richards responds with quiet certainty. "Just like we did on the north end of the district, dude," he says. "Start small and chip away at it. It'll take the rest of my career to get it all done."
A few switchbacks later, he admits he's been fortunate: "This area's gonna go someday. I just hope we can do a few things in here before it does."
I am suddenly overwhelmed with the enormity of the task facing Richards. I wouldn't want to be the person who has to decide which fires should burn and which ones shouldn't. And I realize that every piece of public ground in the West needs someone like Richards - someone humble, cautious, determined, intimately acquainted with the local landscape, someone willing to walk the razor's edge between resource protection and fire ecology. He's part of an insightful and distinguished tribe - the Gila firefighters - an organization that combines a century's worth of fire suppression experience with a fierce desire to do what's right for the land.
The tribe is growing, albeit slowly. So far in 2004, just 124,588 acres have burned under Fire Use, but many of those fires involved forests that were implementing Fire Use for the first time, according to Paul Boucher. Even California, known for stubbornly stamping out fires whenever possible, allowed 25,000 acres to burn.
This fall, forest managers across the West are mandated to develop new fire plans - policies that will help give Fire Use a major boost in the coming decade, according to Tim Sexton. As they craft these plans, fire managers can look to the story of the Gila, which proves that, with time, patience and leadership, every national forest can learn to work with fire, rather than just attacking it.
It's getting there that's the trick, of course. But then again, 30 years ago, we hadn't even decided where "there" was. Now we know: It's a future where fire in our forests is not an otherworldly spectacle or a media sensation, but a commonplace event, as unremarkable as the trees and the grass.
Adam Burke writes from Paonia, Colorado. He came across Toby Richards when he was producer of Radio High Country News.
This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
1995 National Fire plan www.fs.fed.us/land/wdfire.htm
National Interagency Fire Center www.nifc.gov
Paul Boucher, Fire Staff Officer, Gila National Forest 505-388-8260
Ken Stump, Acting Fire Management Officer, Clearwater-Nez Perce Fire Zone 208-983-4067, firstname.lastname@example.org