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Caution urged as fire season arrives

The Cuervito Fire burning east of Pecos is being managed by firefighters to reduce fuel and help prevent a catastrophic event. (Courtesy of Terrence Gallegos/USDA Forest Service)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The lightning-sparked Cuervito Fire is all but out thanks to the week’s moisture, but the two-week blaze gave forest fire crews a good jump on a season that is expected to be a hot one.

Covering 1,300 acres, the managed blaze sucked up the ground fuel that accumulated without doing lasting damage to the healthy forest, said Terrence Gallegos, deputy fire staff officer for the Santa Fe National Forest

“It was in an area that had seen some previous wildfires and prescribed fire,” Gallegos said. “So, it was a good fire. Natural ignition, managed fire for resource objectives, which is thinning the forest, knocking out some of the heavy dead and down fuel on the ground. We’ve been very successful in doing that. It was a really good fire on the landscape. We’re very pleased with it.”

It is the bad fires that surge and roar out of control that has Gallegos concerned as the ongoing drought is leading experts to fear the worst.

And, while last season was a banner year for visitors to the wild and this year is promising to be one, too, there have been signs that those concerns are not being heeded.

Over Mother’s Day weekend, ranger patrols discovered nearly 30 abandoned – but not out – campfires in the Jemez and Pecos/Las Vegas ranger districts. And several of those were not just smoldering remains, but raging logs that nobody had even tried to put out.

“Unfortunately, this has been an ongoing problem for us,” Gallegos said. “The Santa Fe, Jemez, and Pecos areas are very popular for recreators. We love that. We just want to see a lot more responsible behavior when it comes to folks not putting out these campfires. It’s just concerning.”

Not only is it extremely dangerous, but also it takes Forest Service personnel away from other duties.

The Cuervito Fire burning east of Pecos was dampened by recent rains. Fire crews got an early start on the season battling the blaze. (Courtesy of Terrance Gallegos/ USDA Forest Service)

“It’s a big workload on our folks to commit resources to putting out other people’s campfires when we could be using our teams more wisely,” Gallegos said. “But it’s been such an ongoing problem and we’re at the point where we’re just pleading with people to be responsible.”

And doing so doesn’t take much effort, said Jeremy Golsten, recreation program manager for the National Forest.

“Number one, have a plan for your trip. It’s all about planning ahead,” he said. “How are we going take out our trash? How are we going to put our fire out? The more prepared you are, the more successful your trip will be. They are public lands and we all share them. We all have a level of stewardship. We have to have this shared ethic so our future generations can enjoy public lands the way we did. It’s interwoven into the public land movement.”

Chantel D. Herrick, assistant public affairs officer with the Forest Service, and a fire prevention specialist near Flagstaff, Arizona, offered a few tips for campers.

“Make sure the area where the campfire ring is, is all clear,” she said. “The main thing, I really like making sure you’re coming prepared. Everyone is so excited to build a campfire for the first time or gather wood. But people often forget they need water.”

Herrick said she likes to take a shovel and at least five gallons of water for the sole purpose of putting out the campfire.

“Drown it, stir it, feel it,” she said. “When you stir it all up, run your hand over the top. Don’t stick your hand in it. But see if you can feel anything. Make it look like a mud pie.”

Getting the word out is a constant battle, Herrick said.

“A lot of it we try to do through social media, and we try to get to the communities and talk to the people,” she said. “We try to get it out early. Also, sharing things with people, trying to be proactive in letting them know wildfire season is approaching. We’re reminding people to get ready.”