'A disaster waiting to happen' - Albuquerque Journal

‘A disaster waiting to happen’

These forests west of Chacon in Mora County were burned by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. The overgrown forests have suffered from long-term drought and insect damage. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has been a costly and traumatic disaster.

The blaze, which is now 93% contained, has burned more than 340,000 acres.

It has destroyed at least 400 homes, threatened regional water supplies and displaced thousands of residents.

Crews have spent more than $270 million fighting the fire that started as two separate U.S. Forest Service burns.

But how did northern New Mexico become a tinderbox for such a destructive blaze?

Joshua Sloan, a New Mexico Highlands University forestry professor who helps lead the institution’s forestry and reforestation center, points to a “tangled web” of federal policies, endangered species conflicts and a changing climate.

In the early 1900s, the U.S. Forest Service adopted the “10 o’clock policy.”

Any fire start, no matter the cause, mandated that crews put it out by 10 a.m. the next morning.

The strategy would last for decades, essentially excluding all fire from federal forest lands.

“That nationwide fire suppression policy took no account of natural fire activity in these forest systems and it took no account of the ecological roles of fire in these forest systems,” Sloan said.

Trees steadily built up in forests without the benefit of fires to thin the dense landscapes – hundreds of trees that historically would have been removed by low-intensity burns.

The Calf canyon/Hermits Peak Fire severely burned some areas of the mountains above the Mora Valley. Forest experts say the region’s forests were overgrown following decades of fire suppression policies and a changing climate. A federal review has acknowledged the long-term effects of old management policies in northern New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s these ladder fuels that facilitate movement of fire from the ground up into the canopy,” Sloan said. “That’s really where we see those catastrophic fires.”

The stress of an overstocked forest has also made the trees more vulnerable to insects and disease.

The Forest Service’s federal review of the prescribed burn that became the Hermits Peak Fire also acknowledges the long-term effects of old management policies in northern New Mexico.

“Approximately one century of fire suppression in the watershed has resulted in a highly modified ponderosa pine forest structure that is more prone to high-intensity and high-severity wildfires,” the report states.

Mexican spotted owl

Conflict over a rare bird has also influenced the overgrowth of New Mexico’s forests.

In 1993, the federal government declared the Mexican spotted owl an endangered species.

Resulting legal actions to protect the bird’s habitat prohibited harvesting wood on federal land in the state for nearly two years.

Once the logs stopped rolling in, timber mills closed up shop.

The industry has not bounced back in New Mexico.

An industry that had helped thin forests, even through the Forest Service’s fire suppression policies, all but disappeared.

“There are major trust issues between the wood products industry and managers of the federal land base,” Sloan said.

In 2019, another lawsuit over the owl temporarily halted all wood harvesting on federal forest lands.

Forest councils

Local communities have an important role to play in rethinking land management, said Matt Piccarello, the forest and watershed health manager for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico.

Tribes, pueblos and land grant residents were caring for forests long before federal agencies stepped in.

“That history is all still very present,” Piccarello said. “Any opportunities to bring those communities into the management of national forests is a positive step.”

The conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund supports the work of two forest councils – Cerro Negro near Questa and the Rio de Las Trampas – that are models for that kind of partnership.

Community forest councils operate much like acequias, with mayordomos acting as land stewards and overseeing projects. Leñeros, or woodcutters, gather wood on forest land by removing specific trees to help thin the forests under the council programs.

The councils are also working with forest officials to be included in briefings on thinning or prescribed fire projects.

“Ultimately, the responsibility over whether to light the match on federal land is still going to lie with the burn boss,” he said. “But, at least some shared ownership over that decision could go a long way.”

A view of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire’s mosaic-style burn surrounding the Mora Valley. Some experts see this fire as a turning point for forest management reform. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Extremely dry forests

Long-term drought and rising temperatures also have stressed northern New Mexico’s forests.

For at least two years, monsoon moisture did little to quench dry trees and grass.

Following a “double-dip La Niña” pattern of less snowpack, any snow the region did receive this year melted off much earlier than normal.

Matthew Hurteau, a forest ecologist and University of New Mexico biology professor, said a dense forest filled with dead and drought-stressed trees influenced the fire’s growth.

The eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains had relatively little fire activity in the past 50 years and few thinning or burning treatments.

“That created conditions, along with the drought and wind events, that allowed fire to push through those continuous fuels pretty well,” Hurteau said.

He contrasted that with this year’s Cerro Pelado Fire west of Los Alamos.

Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak grew to more than seven times the fire footprint of Cerro Pelado.

“There was so much prior fire and fuels work (on Cerro Pelado), including thinning and prescribed burning, that it really changed the way that fire interacted,” Hurteau said. “You really see different stages of forest conditions in terms of the attention they’ve gotten from management.”

Catalyst for change

Communities devastated by Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak face flooding threats and a long road to recovery.

Many lost homes or pastures that have been passed down for generations.

But some also see the disaster as a wake-up call.

In areas that burned at lower severity, the fire may have even accomplished the beneficial ecological work of a natural fire.

Reforming decades of federal policies, overcoming budget and workforce constraints, and combating a rapidly changing climate won’t be easy for forest managers.

But many experts are optimistic that big changes could get momentum.

“We’ve had a sense of urgency for a while,” Piccarello said. “I think people doing this work knew even before Las Conchas and Cerro Grande (two of the state’s most destructive wildfires prior to Hermits Peak) that there were issues in these forests. This was a disaster waiting to happen. You can’t snap your fingers overnight and fix it, but a lot of the work is already being done.”

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