A walk in the (burned) woods


The largest fire in New Mexico's recorded history, the Las Conchas, is 45 percent contained; its footprint covers 146,000 acres (not all of that land has been charred, though, since wildfires burn in patches). The blaze started on the afternoon of June 26 when an aspen tree fell onto a powerline southwest of Los Alamos.  It exploded to 40,000 acres overnight, driven by high winds and crispy-dry forest fuels.

"I'd never seen fire behave that way," says Bill Armstrong, fuels program specialist for the Santa Fe National Forest, describing how quickly the blaze spread. "It confounds everything I thought I knew." Fires are crucial to the Southwest's ecology, but the results of decades of fire suppression, drought and a warming climate mean that blazes are more and more likely to become massive and burn with a severity far beyond normal.

On June 30th,  I took a field trip with Armstrong into the Santa Fe forest near the burning area, to look at how previous forest thinning and prescribed burns could help slow down big, fast-moving fires like the Las Conchas.

 In a white agency pickup stuffed with maps, boots and backpacks, we bump down a dusty dirt road south of Abiquiu, passing through the old land grant. The vegetation is dry, sere, brown, the pinon-juniper forest parched. A spring bubbles across the road, supporting a small oasis of green; Armstrong says he's never seen the water fail there even after years of drought.

We rattle over a cattle guard as we travel farther, up into ponderosa forest, into the South Fork burn, a wildfire that the Forest Service allowed to burn on some 18,000 acres last summer. "We could let that one go, since conditions were wetter and calmer," says Armstrong. "This year no way. Too hot, too dry, too windy. We have to pounce on every fire."

We're heading towards the Las Conchas fire, which at this point has been burning for four days. Pinkish-grey smoke obscures the far hills and gives the air a campfire tang. Armstrong points out a scrubby peak to our right, the site of an obsidian quarry used by ancient people. "That'll be on fire by this afternoon," he says.

We pass a "Forest Closed Due to Fire Danger" sign nailed to a tree.

Finally, we park the truck and unload our gear. Smoke hangs thickly on the horizon and the campfire smell is stronger, carried by a stiff breeze from the west. The Las Conchas fire is still over a mile away. Armstrong shoulders a big green pack embroidered with "Santa Fe Hotshots." He hands me a carabiner holding two pairs of worn leather gloves and asks me to clip it to the pack. "Just standard procedure to bring along potato bakers (emergency fire shelters)," he says, "including the gloves to hold them down."

I look at the gloves and think about what it would feel like to have to deploy that shelter in the face of an oncoming wildfire, to huddle in a tiny orange tube, pressing it to bare ground with gloved hands, feeling heat radiate through the thin walls, listening to the flames roar.

I consider telling him that I've got an urgent appointment back in Santa Fe. Instead, I put thoughts about baking out of my mind and hoist my pack. We hike west along the road through part of the South Fork burn, looking at previous timber sales and old prescribed burns, seeing how the widely-spaced trees left behind helped slow the South Fork fire and kept it from climbing into the crowns of the trees and becoming more destructive. A horned lizard scuttles through the grass.

 In places the forest floor is covered with a clean scatter of pine needles; in other spots, the aspen understory has crept back, along with tufts of fescue, and foot-tall ponderosa seedlings.

Where the ponderosas crowd close in dog-hair stands, Armstrong looks at them with disdain. "Weeds," he says. "Those trees are weeds. We need to burn them out."

In a previously burned area, he points out aspen trunks that black bears have clawed. Apparently after a fire bears like to eat the nicely-toasted inner bark. "Maybe it tastes like marshmallows to them," he says.

After an hour and a half he stops, scans the sky, notes the strengthening wind, decides that it would be safest not to push on to the lookout that had been our planned destination. With the wind kicking up, the Las Conchas blaze could ignite spot fires up to a mile away.

We turn around and start walking back. It's about 1 pm. Cumulus clouds are building to the south of us over a distant ridge, and they reflect a faint orange glow from the flames tearing through the forest below. At the truck, we swill water to wash smoky dust from our throats and eat a quick lunch in the shade of a ponderosa.

Armstrong speculates about how long it might take the fire to come this way, and what it will do when it hits the previously thinned and burned areas. "I can't wait to get back in here and see what happened," he says. After we've driven some miles back down the road, soft black flakes of ash come sifting through the air, harbingers of the conflagration to come ...

On July 6, Armstrong began assessing the damage the Las Conchas fire had done to trees and to homes. When it got to the South Fork burn, he says, "it just laid down. It stopped." 

In other areas, though, the devastation was massive. Armstrong writes:

I was on Cochiti Mesa yesterday, site of an off-the-grid community of perhaps 30 homes.  Three are left standing.  The heat crumbled foundations traced like an etch-a-sketch in the ash, drawing the locations of the homes.  Contorted pipes dangled like abstract marionettes from the charred remains, chimneys stood naked against the black hills, globs of dirty melted silica and twisted skeletons of bicycles and children's swings sat silently in the snow-like ash.  The surrounding trees stood like blackened bones.

Such scenes are inevitable, given the ever-growing number of homes built in the hinterlands. The question is not whether the Southwest's forests will burn, but how -- in many small, less-severe fires, or in a few enormous scorchers. "Given a large enough area over a long enough period, the same number of acres will burn," says Armstrong. "But the severity changes. If you're practicing suppression, and you stomp on the little fires, then it all burns in one event. Then it's a huge fire and you have to put it out."

Jodi Peterson is High Country News' managing editor.

All photos by Jodi Peterson.

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