The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) burned 1,243 acres of the Carson National Forest, specifically between Quartzite Peak and Forest Road 42 (near El Rito), on Thursday (Oct. 21).
Carson National Forest is one of the five forests in New Mexico and spans 1.5 million acres. Trees such as Ponderosa Pine, Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine fir, Quaking Aspen and Rocky Mountain Juniper cover that wide expanse of land.
Almost every year a wildfire will occur in the forest, according to Aaron Livingston, a USFS fire prevention technician. Livingston said that one of the most effective tools to prevent that from happening and promoting healthier forests is a prescribed burn.
“Prescribed fire, fire in general, is a cleaning tool. It’s god’s cleaning tool,” said Livingston.
A prescribed burn is meant to restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire, promote growth of plants and trees, remove unwanted species not native to an ecosystem, among other benefits, according to the Forest Service.
As climate change has made the world hotter and drier over the last the 100 years, prescribed burns are becoming more and more critical to mitigating the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Planning and control
A prescribed fire is mapped out and heavily planned before it is ignited. Specific parameters for temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction are determined in advance. Forest managers in New Mexico find that this time of year tends to provide those conditions and monitor them constantly over radios once a burn begins.
The fire is ignited by small flammable ping pong balls, or "Delayed Arial Ignition Devices," that are shot out of a device from a helicopter. On the ground, fire personnel use drip torches to burn specific areas. EMTs are also on site as a precaution.
On Thursday (Oct. 21), Livingston’s job was to observe and communicate the direction of the smoke from a watchtower located off Forest Roads 110 and 111 in the Carson, where the flames and smoke drifted westwardly, before finally enveloping the area mapped out for the prescribed burn.
The overseer of the 18-person operation, known as "the burn boss," could decide to put the fire out at a moment's notice if a specific criteria for the burn wasn't met.
Hilary Markin, a USFS public information officer, said prescribed burns mimic naturally occurring wildfires, but the goal is to take the "wild" out of the equation and instead reap the benefits that fire provides to a forest's ecosystem.
“What we're doing is trying to restore the health of the forest ... through a natural process, and at the same time, we're reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires, because of people living here now,” said Markin.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) states that wildfires can add nutrients to the soil, clear heavy brush and kill disease and insect infestations.
Last year, the Carson had “low fire severity,” in part, because of a heavy monsoon season, according to Livingston. However, wildfires and the vast volumes of smoke they produce remain serious national concerns, especially in the Western United States.
For example, in July 2021, the Dixie Fire in California was the second largest wildfire on record for the state. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported that over 960 thousand acres were burned.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported that a total of 6,518,382 acres of wildland have burned this year, with over 48,000 wildfire incidents from January through October.
The two main causes for wildfires are lightning strikes and humans, who often unknowingly cause destructive fires when they fail to put out a campfire properly, pitch cigarettes into brush or drag chains behind their vehicles.
The NIFC reported 746 lightning caused wildfires in the southwest U.S. in 2020, whereas 2,743 acres of wildfires burned were caused by humans.
Carrying out a prescribed fire successfully requires the work of many different people. Federal, state, local and tribal entities all typically have to work in conjunction with one another before a fire can be implemented.
“It’s a huge consideration, because the majority of people dislike having large concentrations of smoke imposed on them,” said Livingston.
He said for a place like the Taos area, implementing a prescribed fire can be difficult.
“We think that we're doing the right thing. But it's an awful hard sell on people, residents are getting smoke imposed on them. And this is just a tourist driven economy. And so you impose that type of stuff on the public that came here to enjoy vistas and fresh air ... and it’s harder to justify that you’re doing the right thing,” said Livingston.
Markin said that the USFS tries to send notifications to people in areas that can be directly affected by the smoke from a prescribed burn.
“If there's somebody in the local area that your burn is, and that person has asthma or has some sort of health condition that makes them sensitive to smoke, we actually have some of those people outlined right in our burn plan. That burn boss is making that call to say, ‘Make sure you have your oxygen. Make sure you have everything you need,’ or they leave the community when we're burning,” she said.
The burns also take into account historical and cultural considerations.
“Complexities on site might be archaeological, there's a lot of heritage in New Mexico ... there's an awful lot of archaeological considerations. That's one of the things that the burn plan makes for being an arduous process as you're working with all the specialists,” Livingston said.
He said any prescribed burns take these considerations seriously.
“People are scared, right, they see smoke, especially if you've had bad experiences with wildfires in the past. Think about the Western fire season that we've just had a fire season in other places, too,” said Markin.
She added, “a lot of people lost their homes. And so there's that – that fear. And so we're trying to let people know that this is a very controlled environment.”
Moving away from fire suppression
Prescribed fires have historically been used by many indigenous cultures as well.
For several decades, however, prescribed fires by the USFS were not common. Instead, the philosophy for treating forest fires, particularly in western states was fire suppression – or simply putting the wildfires out when they occurred.
“I think that the Forest Service in general sold the agency on a fear-driven concept of put every fire out, and now we put ourselves in a position where we've kind of created an environment that is more fire prone, catastrophic fire prone,” said Livingston.
Rene Romero is a Taos Pueblo tribal member and the Bureau of Indian Affairs fuels grant coordinator for Taos Pueblo. Romero has worked with fire his whole career. Back in 1985, he worked as a smoke jumper in Alaska for 16 years.
He initially feared fire but later grew to love it.
“First I was taught to fear fire, even when I was jumping in my first years and then I grew to understand it, respect it. It became more and more part of my soul,” said Romero.
He said he learned from a fellow smoke jumper that "nature has been taking care of us forever, and we keep screwing up."
"But he said nature knows best," Romero continued. "All he said were two words: ‘imitate nature.' "
More fires to come
After temporarily halting prescribed burns due to the pandemic last year, the forest service plan to continue operations. Typically, they will occur in fall and spring according to Livingston.
USFS implemented another prescribed burn in Carson National Forest near Angel Fire on Monday (Oct. 25) that will burn 500 acres.
The USFS also plan to have another burn near Angel Fire that will treat 1,301 acres.