More trouble waits in the wings

  • Paul Delmerico on crew of controlled burn

    Shaun Hudson photo/Los Alamos Monitor

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article,"The West's hottest question: How to burn what's bound to burn."

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 Flagstaff.

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.

Massive floods 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 Grande.

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."

Not everyone views this fire as a disaster for the forests.

"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."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Tony Davis

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