Environment

Prepping for the big one

Armed with data, fire watchers gear up for the seasons ahead

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The last time a big wildfire burned in all major watersheds in the Taos Valley at the same time was 1842, only a couple years before the official start of the Mexican-American War.

Albuquerque was only a few years old during a valleywide fire before that in 1715. And the yawning wildfire before that, in 1664, predated the Pueblo Revolt against Spanish colonizers by a decade and half.

In between those big wildfires, low-severity fires would regularly move through the valley's mixed conifer forests, sometimes every two years, sometimes once a decade.

Then, the fires in this fire-adapted landscape stopped. Like an endangered species, they disappeared from the mountains around Taos in the late 19th century.

Aside from the Encebado Fire that threatened Taos Pueblo in 2003, it's been 115 years since a fire has touched most parts of the Taos Valley watersheds. That's 115 years worth of trees, logs and other fuels that have built up in the forests.

Each of the valleywide fires happened during a drought that was preceded by several wet years, the exact situation in which Taos County, and New Mexico as a whole, finds itself in now at the tail end of an abnormally dry winter.

The fire season could start earlier than May when it usually begins.

To prepare, fire managers are aggressively gearing up for the season ahead and laying out plans to steadily make the mountain communities and forests more resilient in the years and decades to come.

Frequency of fire

The knowledge of the three valleywide fires did not come without a lot of hard work on the slopes of Taos during the past few years.

A long-held myth about the local forests was that they didn't burn nearly as often as forests in other parts of the Southwest. The Nature Conservancy, along with other partners working to protect the Río Grande watershed, funded a tree ring study to get some clarity about the fire history around Taos.

The tree ring study took samples from trees in three of the major watersheds in the Taos Valley: the Río Hondo to the north, the Río Pueblo de Taos and the Río Fernando to the south. The study was the first of its kind for the area.

Trees are incredible recorders of the environment, said Ellis Margolis, the Santa Fe-based scientist who led the research team.

Trees generally don't die in the low-severity fires that were so common to the mountains of Taos more than a century ago. Scars develop in the wood, and by taking note of those patterns, scientists can identify the time of a fire with remarkable certainty, not only the year, but also within a couple of months.

In the end, Margolis and his team found that collectively, the watersheds saw low-intensity fires return to the same areas usually every 11 to 43 years.

Even in the Hondo Canyon, where Margolis and his team initially thought the land was too steep and cold for fire to happen often, instead found that the average "return interval" for fire was every 20 years.

Margolis said 90 percent of all fires in the Taos area burn during May, June and early July, the boundaries of the area's typical fire season.

While fires burned regularly through the landscape, the three big fire years -- 1664, 1715, 1842 -- had a distinctive pattern. According to Margolis' research, those valleywide burns happened during droughts that were preceded by several relatively wet years.

During wet years, grass and shrubs grow, trees green out. The "fine fuels" build up alongside whole trees in thick forests. It's those smaller fuels that carry wildfires and make for potentially dangerous fire seasons.

As Margolis said during a recent presentation, the "unfortunate truth" is that the historic pattern for those big fires is the same one New Mexico -- and the whole Southwest -- is in the midst of now.

As of last week, 99.5 percent of New Mexico is in some level of drought conditions. The drought conditions in parts of Taos County and seven other counties in the state are extreme.

'Hit them quick'

The stakes are always high when it comes to fighting wildland fires. No matter the agency, firefighters have common priorities -- life first, property second and then the "resources," such as cultural sites, ecological features or wildlife. But in a drought year like this, and with the mountains loaded with fuels big and small, the stakes are even higher.

"I'm nervous," said Sean Ferrell, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service office headquartered in Peñasco.

Even with late-season snows and an uptick in moisture in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, "the drought came on so quickly it is the potential perfect storm for a large fire event," he said.

With the possibility of a major fire season and forecasters suggesting it will come early, the fire community of Northern New Mexico is readily suiting up.

In Colfax County, a transitional area between the eastern slopes of the Sangres and the grasslands that stretch to the Oklahoma border, local crews have already dealt with several fires that could be harbingers of what's to come.

According to Larry Osborn, Colfax County fire marshal, crews have put out 14 grass fires in the Raton area since the beginning of the year.

"We've kept them pretty small," he said. "Our plan is to hit them quick and hit them with everything we've got."

In Colfax County, where roughly 90 percent of all land is privately owned, "everything we've got" is essentially the local volunteer crews that work out of each of the fire districts in the county. They have mutual aid agreements to support the other districts, he said. Raton's is the only paid crew.

The grass in some parts of the county is 2 feet tall, dry and expansive. And with the onset of the March winds, Osborn said he and the other fire managers in his part of the state are "preparing for a rough year."

Over a decade ago, three different lightning-strike fires converged in Colfax County, ballooning into the Ponil Complex fire that got into "totally inaccessible areas" and within less than a mile of the community of Ute Park, Osborn said. Because it outpaced local resources, the state and eventually federal agencies were called to the region.

As impressive as the deployment, management and speedy retreat of federal firefighters was to watch, Osborn's hoping that his part of Northern New Mexico doesn't need a scaled-up response this year.

Scale up

Meanwhile, preparations at federal agencies based in Taos are also in full swing.

At the Bureau of Land Management garage in Taos Tuesday (Feb. 27), four guys were busy sharpening chainsaws and hand tools for digging lines, filling medical kits and cleaning the compact Type 6 engine with 250 gallons of water holding capacity and high-powered hoses for maximum maneuverability.

In the coming weeks, the BLM will be fully staffed with three engines and another 10-person team, totaling about 20 fire personnel. These crews are shared between the Taos and Farmington BLM field offices, which are responsible for approximately the top half of New Mexico.

Some full-time fire personnel recently returned to Taos from assignments elsewhere. One firefighter from the southern Carson National Forest district got back from three weeks in Puerto Rico, where he repaired the island's trails that were mangled in last year's hurricanes. But he's back in New Mexico, and the rest of his crew of seasonal forest service firefighters are at basic training or refresher courses across the state.

The Carson Hotshot crew of 20 highly trained and specialized firefighters is being brought on early because of the increased potential for a bad fire season. In addition, the Carson is hiring, training and deploying six engine crews of four to five people each, as well as other fire technicians, according to Carson spokesperson Denise Ottaviano.

Within a couple weeks, the Carson will have enough people for 7-day coverage, she said. Federal firefighters with both the forest service and BLM can be called to other parts of the county if fires get bad enough; by the same token, if a fire breaks out in Taos, federal resources could be ordered to descend on Taos.

On the ground

Beyond the preparations for this fire season, fire managers in Northern New Mexico are also getting ready for a host of other projects to make the forest more resilient to catastrophic wildfires in the long term.

The Rio Grande Water Fund, the same coalition of organizations that sponsored the fire study, lined up two projects that recently received approval after an environmental review by the Forest Service.

According to Laura McCarthy, the director of the New Mexico branch of The Nature Conservancy, the federal agency has OKed about 10,000 acres of public lands in the San Cristobal and Valdez area to be thinned and selectively burned as conditions allow. Another 800 acres along State Road 150 -- the Taos Ski Valley canyon -- also got the green light for selective treatment.

And two projects are in the planning and community conversation stages now, she said. One plan is to improve the McGaffey Ridge near Llano Quemado while the other aims to treat thousands of acres of Taos Pueblo lands and other federally held lands in the Taos Valley. But implementation for those projects, she said, isn't likely until 2020.

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