SAINT PETER’S DOME TRAIL – Biologist Craig Allen snatched at a clump of cheatgrass growing in the middle of a ragged trail snaking through some of the worst of the mountain landscape burned in last year’s Las Conchas Fire.
Allen’s instinct to pluck at the cheatgrass was understandable. The plant, an invasive, Asian weed that can outrun returning natives, seemed to taunt the U.S. Geological Survey scientist, who has spent most of his adult life studying the ecosystems of the Jemez forests. He pulled the weed from the trail and flung it aside.
Ten months after the blaze roared through the canyons and out across these northern New Mexico mesas, little life has returned.
Scientists and land managers are fanning out this year across Las Conchas’ 156,593 acres, trying to catalog their problems and prioritize the work that must be done: protecting fragile archeological sites, opening popular hiking trails, managing the surge of post-fire sediment and thinking about what happens next to the battered ecosystem.
Nearly half the area burned lightly, what foresters call a healthy fire of the type that is natural in these arid mountains. Little work other than letting nature take its course will be required, they say.
But vast areas of the southwest Jemez Mountains landscape were devastated.
A half-mile down the trail, the futility of Allen’s reflexive weeding became clear as the trail passed through a big patch of once forested hillside now covered with cheatgrass. With barely any other green in sight, the cheatgrass hillside was a reminder of what scientists and land managers believe about the most heavily burned parts of the Las Conchas landscape: It may be beyond the power of humans to intercede as the post-fire ecosystem heads off in its own new direction.
On a landscape where ponderosa pine flourished in the high country and piñon-juniper covered lower-elevation mesas, little life is evident 10 months after the fire, beyond the occasional scrubby oaks emerging from roots that survived, along with little flowers here and there.
Plans are under way to begin replanting some of the fire zone, but the scale of the effort is small relative to the area burned.
“We’re not sure what’s going to come back here,” Allen said, “because even the most resilient life forms are not doing well.”
The fire exploded across the southeast Jemez Mountains on June 26, sparked at 1:08 p.m. by a falling power line in the little mountain hamlet of Las Conchas on State Route 4 between Jemez Springs and Los Alamos.
Six months of drought had left the overgrown, unhealthy forest primed for fire. Dry windy weather that day blew the spark from that downed line into a firestorm that still draws awestruck comments from those who watched it that first afternoon.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 31-year career,” said Jon Williams, ecosystem staff officer for the Santa Fe National Forest.
Sixty-three homes and 49 other buildings were destroyed, and when the fire was finally declared contained in August, it had become the largest one in recorded New Mexico history.
In the near-term aftermath, floods from summer thunderstorms have posed the biggest problem.
By destroying vegetation that would normally slow the flow of water from rainstorms, the fire significantly increased the risk of flooding, explained Grant Kolb, a hydrologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Stream flows after a summer storm are at least 10 times greater after the fire than from a comparable storm before, according to an analysis by Kolb and his colleagues.
One of the hardest hit watersheds, in Santa Clara Canyon, has left Santa Clara Pueblo vulnerable. Federal teams have installed an early warning system to detect summer thunderstorms and warn the community, Kolb said.
Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation wrote to the heads of three key federal agencies Thursday, asking for more help in preparing to deal with “a real and immediate threat” as the summer rainy season nears.
The Corps of Engineers has also built a floating log boom to catch burned timber before it flows down the Rio Grande and clogs Cochiti Reservoir, the flood control dam that protects the middle Rio Grande Valley.
At Bandelier National Monument, crews are crawling the park, checking each of 1,105 known archaeological sites in the Las Conchas burn zone, said park archaeologist Rory Gauthier. A significant part of the fire that burned across the sites, mostly the remains of native dwellings, was low-intensity fire that did not cause significant damage. But the Park Service is looking for erosion risk that could threaten sites, Gauthier said, building check dams and other structures to protect them.
A flood washed out Bandelier’s popular Frijoles Canyon trail, which runs from the park visitor’s center to the Rio Grande. A survey is under way to determine the best way to rebuild it, said Barbara Judy, the park’s chief of resource management.
One of the largest post-fire efforts in the Jemez falls outside the boundaries of the Las Conchas burn itself, as the Forest Service and other agencies and groups work to restore large areas of unburned forest suffering from the same thick, unhealthy condition that provided fuel for Las Conchas.
The Southwest Jemez Mountains landscape restoration project began in 2010, a year before Las Conchas, and is aimed at thinning and using prescribed burns on a 210,000-acre area of land spreading west from the Las Conchas burn area, said Linda Riddle, a ranger in the Forest Service Jemez District.
As a result of grazing and forest fire suppression, experts have long warned of the risks of fires like Las Conchas and the other big blazes of 2011.
“Lots of people have been predicting the increase of size and intensity of wildfires in the Southwest,” Riddle said.
Nine thousand acres have been cleared, with another 8,500-plus acres of the multiyear effort planned this year.
“We’re going fast to thin as much as we can, to kind of beat the clock on the next Las Conchas Fire,” said Bob Parmenter of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, one of the Forest Service’s partners in the project.
As for the forests on the severely burned part of landscape, officials say restoration will be a slow process, if it can be done at all. The fire was so widespread, especially during that first day, that no living ponderosa are left across vast areas to provide the seeds needed to begin a natural regeneration process.
During a daylong hike last week across an area that once was dominated by ponderosa pines, Allen and his colleagues saw a single clump of live trees. The fire burned so hot as it rolled out of the high country that it completely incinerated vast areas of lower-elevation piñon and juniper woodland.
“That whole landscape, which I’m intimately familiar with, is now foreign to me,” said archaeologist Gauthier.
To help nature along, the Santa Fe National Forest has identified 30,000 acres with either a high or moderate chance of successful reforestation, and carefully chosen ponderosa pine seedlings are being cultivated for planting next year. But that first wave of planting will cover only an estimated 1,500 of those acres.
“We’re going to plug away at this for the next 10 years to see where we get,” said National Forest ecologist Williams. “The limiting factor is going to be how much money we get to do the work.”
Riddle, who oversees the Santa Forest’s Jemez Ranger District, where the fire started, was frank about the prospects for reforestation of the burned landscape.
“Not in our lifetimes,” she said. “It won’t be a forest like it was.”
Near the southern edge of the fire zone, Allen walked up to an ancient ponderosa burned to a crisp by a tongue of fire that blasted out of Sanchez Canyon on the first day of the fire, killing all the trees in its path. He pointed to scars on the tree’s trunk left by old floods and fires. The big tree had survived each previous insult, but not last summer’s final one.
“It’s hard to accept,” Allen said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal