Matt Schmader climbed down from the Albuquerque city open space division truck and pointed to the point in the bosque where it all started.
Ten years ago today, a trio of teenagers from the nearby Duranes neighborhood, playing with fireworks, triggered the first of a pair of conflagrations that blew through the riverside woods.
As forest fires go, they were small. Heroic efforts by firefighters held them to just 263 acres. No homes were lost.
But the fires launched Albuquerque unhappily onto a very public stage as national media coverage showed a forest fire burning through the middle of a major American city. And they triggered a decade of work that has dramatically changed the 2,600 acres of Rio Grande forest threading through the middle of Bernalillo County.
“It went straight north from here,” said Schmader, head of the city’s Open Space Division, as he stood in the bosque south of Interstate 40 looking out across what could only be called a transformation.
“After the fire, this was basically just down to the ground,” Schmader said as he walked through what is today a sparse forest of young cottonwoods, trees now 20 feet high.
The riverside woods, prized by Albuquerque residents as the city’s open space jewel, are in fact anything but natural. Before dams and levees brought the Rio Grande to heel, routine flooding would tear through the forest and spread across the valley floor.
The result was a patchy forest, regularly cleaned out and renewed by flooding, Schmader explained. “All forests thrive on some level of disturbance,” he said.
Without that, the bosque had become choked with downed timber and invasive small trees like salt cedar that, in the heat of those June 2003 days, turned the woods into a tinderbox.
Fire only made things worse. “Part of the problem in the bosque is that the invaders are more adapted to fire,” Schmader said.
In the decade since, Schmader’s city crews and workers from other government agencies with bosque jurisdiction have transformed much of the urban forest. Manual thinning has reduced the heavy growth, cutting fire risk and returning some of the woods to an appearance more like the open parklike patches of cottonwoods that would have been found along the river in centuries past. But some areas of the bosque remain thickets and, with the extreme dry weather of the past year, fire danger remains high.
One of the things that has become clear is that there is no end point to the process, Schmader said as he pointed to a clump of invasive “tree of heaven,” a Chinese native that has gained a foothold in the bosque.
Albuquerque budgets some $600,000 a year for bosque maintenance, enough money to treat 300 acres a year, or a bit more than 10 percent of the wooded area.
With no flooding any more, baby cottonwoods cannot sprout, so the city plants 1,000 new young trees each year. And Schmader and his staff spend a lot of time watching the evolving ecosystem, working to get natural forces moving in a useful direction.
“We never try to control it,” he said. “We just try to push it in the right direction.”