SANTA FE – A prescribed burn crew had been waiting for at least 4 inches of snow to fall before it could begin its scheduled pile burn at Glorieta Camps, about 20 miles southeast of Santa Fe. Last week, they received 6 to 8 inches and the go-ahead to start the burn.
Thursday morning, the crew of about a dozen people in yellow and green gear divided into several trucks to climb the snow-covered mountain.
“When you actually get to put fire on the ground, it represents a huge effort over many years to get this work done, so it’s always a little bit of a celebration,” said Gabe Kohler with the Forest Stewards Guild, a nonprofit that conducts controlled burns, this time alongside staff from Glorieta Camps and the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute at New Mexico Highlands University.
This is the first burn of the season for the Forest Stewards Guild in a year where both public and private crews are approaching prescribed burns with extra caution after last year’s Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, where a prescribed burn in April and a winter pile burn that had remained dormant grew and merged into the most destructive fire in the modern state history.
Forest fires that begin as prescribed burns are extremely rare, but the massive destruction from the fire caused the Forest Service to cease all prescribed burns for 90 days as it conducted a review of its program.
Still, the Forest Service and other organizations that use and study prescribed burns maintain that they’re critical to forest health. “Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat (wildfires),” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in a report last June. “Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely.”
The fire crew at Glorieta Camps left the trucks in a clearing and hiked past dozens of piles of cleared branches and debris about 6 feet in diameter. A different crew made these piles a couple years earlier and left them here to dry out naturally.
Pile burns are one kind of prescribed burn and are conducted in the winter, when snow and low temperatures help to control their spread. They serve to cut down on the brush that can fuel wildfires.
The Forest Stewards Guild crew that conducted this burn works in several locations across northern New Mexico, but its operation is small. Its employees at this burn are certified with the Forest Service to conduct burns.
The crew follows federal guidelines when partnering with public agencies, but it’s not required to on private lands like Glorieta Camps, and members said that those guidelines are sometimes unrealistic outside of public lands.
“We’re doing our best to follow the federal National Wildland Coordinating Group standards, but those are designed for federal employees where that’s their job, and they have an agency that’s built to support them,” Forest Stewards Guild Deputy Director Eytan Krasilovsky said.
In 2021, the New Mexico Legislature passed a law that called for the creation of a state certification system for groups conducting prescribed burns. That system is still in the works, but Krasilovsky said those standards will likely be more useful than the federal ones for small operations such as this one.
The others participating in this burn had gone through, at minimum, training with the Forest Stewards Guild and a physical fitness test, though several have credentials and experience beyond that.
They started by testing a few piles at the top. “It’s just a test to see how the piles light up, if they have trouble lighting. We can see how the smoke reacts to the wind,” said Devon Ruiz with Glorieta Camps.
They didn’t light easily, but they did eventually get going, and the crew noted that the very light winds weren’t having a strong effect on the fire or smoke.
The crew hiked back down the path, and spread out to the piles across the slope, each within yelling-range of a few other crew members. They used drip torches to light each pile and many took several tries because of the moisture in the wood from precipitation. Krasilovsky said that while the conditions slowed down the process of getting the fires going, they also gave the crew a great deal of control.
Krasilovsky said the crew would come back over the coming days to tend to the piles and prevent them from burning past when they want them to.
“It’s kind of like stoking a campfire, to get better consumption, so that things don’t linger on the edges of the pile,” he said.
Coming down the slope, he pointed out a dead ponderosa pine that had cracked apart at about 30 feet, but once stood even taller. He said the tree probably died from drought, but it’s hard to tell without looking more closely. What it didn’t die from was fire.
“The fact that it curves around the scar means that it’s been healing itself ever since,” he said. “That’s evidence of fire on the landscape in the past.”