Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
CARSON NATIONAL FOREST – Jamie Long stands in the burn scar of the Midnight Fire, a few miles north of El Rito.
He recalls how fast and hot the fire was in early June.
“Getting in front of that thing was not possible,” said Long, the Carson National Forest’s west zone fire management officer. “And we kept on just trying to anchor in and find a good place to get it.”
He remembers fearing the fire’s potential for massive growth.
A lightning strike started the Midnight Fire on June 9 about eight miles northeast of El Rito in Rio Arriba County.
New Mexico forests were a tinderbox at that time, closed to the public in an effort to prevent another fire starting.
Fires across the state were growing to hundreds of thousands of acres. And prescribed burns across the nation were on hold after two Forest Service burns escaped to become the largest fire in New Mexico history.
Weeks of dry, windy and warm conditions didn’t bode well for the Midnight Fire.
But when flames reached the 2019 Francisquito Fire burn scar, the fire dropped from an active crown fire burning through the tree canopy to a ground fire.
“This allowed us to get a foothold for the Midnight Fire when it was cruising up the mountain,” Long said.
Crews declared the fire 100% contained at 4,896 acres on July 1 – less than a month after it started.
Crews tamed the Midnight Fire relatively quickly, compared with others across the state during one of New Mexico’s earliest and most destructive fire seasons.
But it wasn’t an accident.
Brent Davidson, deputy fire staff officer on the Carson National Forest, said the region’s previous fire and forest thinning acted as “building blocks” to slow the Midnight Fire.
“Certainly, without these units in front of it, it would have been a much larger footprint with the conditions and the winds,” he said.
Forest crews burned areas west of Vallecitos for the Alamosa prescribed fire project in 2018.
The next year, the Francisquito Fire ignited near the burned areas after a lightning strike.
Davidson said the planned burns created a “catcher’s mitt” on the landscape where crews could safely manage the natural fire.
Instead of attacking Francisquito with a full suppression strategy, the team switched gears.
With a naturally ignited wildfire, Forest Service crews examine the surrounding area and previous burns and other landscape projects.
The team predicts how the fire will burn and considers weather conditions and nearby communities.
“If it appears that it’s going to be beneficial to the ecosystem, then we can manage that fire and use that fire for benefits across the landscape,” Davidson said.
Years later, winds pushed the Midnight Fire and spot fires from the blaze into the Francisquito burn scar and the Alamosa prescribed burn area.
The fire slowed, allowing crews to build containment lines.
“Stacked efforts” of yearslong projects paid off, said Esmé Cadiente, the Forest Stewards Guild’s southwest regional director.
About half of the resources for the Alamosa prescribed fire projects came from the All Hands All Lands Burn Team, a project of the Guild and the Rio Grande Water Fund.
“The treatments have been placed very intentionally in this area,” Cadiente said.
Prescribed fire as a tool has come under scrutiny this year after the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which was started by two separate burn projects. The state’s largest wildfire burned across more than 340,000 acres in northern New Mexico and destroyed at least 340 homes.
But the Midnight Fire is an example of the tool working as intended.
Some of the fire burned at high-severity.
Intense burns can scorch soils and cause flooding.
However, much of the Midnight burn scar in the forest near El Rito looks healthy.
Grasses and trees have sprouted after a robust monsoon season.
Prescribed fire resumes
Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service announced it would resume prescribed fire projects nationwide – with a few big changes.
Now, “go/no-go” briefings will be standardized across the agency for crews deciding whether to proceed with prescribed burns.
Crews will receive approval for burns on a daily basis, instead of a broad time window.
Burn bosses must review current weather conditions and the surrounding landscape to ensure the burn plan is still valid.
Teams can’t resume their burn programs until the local forest offices review the agency report.
A Forest Service review of the agency’s prescribed fire program found that officials “need to be clear about the risk of conducting prescribed burning operations as well as the cost of delaying or avoiding treatments.”
“Instead of creating a culture of risk avoidance, they need to move forward with clarity about what they can control,” the review team wrote. “As they increase the pace and scale of landscape-level treatments, they can increase the odds of success but not reduce the risk to zero.”
The team also noted that prescribed fire projects are often the first to be put on hold.
“Agency culture will need to change to elevate the priority of prescribed fire and adopt an all-hands approach to using this central tool for fuels reduction and forest resiliency,” the review said.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore pointed to the benefits of prescribed fire in the agency’s announcement after a 90-day burn pause.
Moore noted that strategic burns and forest thinning make wildfire behavior “less dramatic,” giving fire crews a better chance to protect communities and landscapes.
“We have to do more of this work on a broader scale,” he said.
‘Tools in the toolbox’
Mary Stuever, the New Mexico Forestry Division’s Chama District Ranger, knows that fire can be a chaotic force.
But she sees the Midnight Fire activity as the result of well-planned fire projects that worked the way they were designed.
“We want all the tools in the toolbox,” Stuever said, “and there are places where we know we’re not going to be able to put fire on the ground.”
Thinning is important for preventing overgrown stands and preparing for burns.
It’s also a labor-intensive and expensive forest treatment, especially across remote, steep landscapes.
Planned burns and managed natural fires can regenerate the forest and add nutrients, as well as reduce harmful insects and invasive plants.
A growing coalition of federal and non-federal groups are committed to active management of New Mexico’s forests as the state faces increased wildfire risk.
Part of that commitment means working with the people who live in the wildland-urban interface.
“A big part of what we come up against in being able to take advantage of favorable-weather burn windows is smoke sensitivity in communities, particularly in the fall when ventilation isn’t as good,” Cadiente said.
The Forest Stewards Guild and the Fire Adapted Communities New Mexico Learning Network loan out air purifiers for residents during planned burns.
“Everything fire dependent is weather dependent,” Cadiente said. “And so anytime we’re going to have a prescribed fire, it has to meet all of these specifications, including air quality.”
Burn planning can take years.
Teams identify land parcels, map out communities and wildlife populations, and prep the forest with thinning projects.
The crews also consider how the burned area will be maintained for years to come.
As Forest Service crews prepare for fall burns, land managers are hopeful that “good fire” can play a safe role in dense forests full of dead and dying trees.
“Fire in one way or the other, whether it’s prescribed fire or natural, is about the only way we can economically get this work done,” Long said.