Like an uninvited guest who stays and does the dishes, wildfire is uncomfortably helpful. Its restorative powers are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.
Until the 1980s, forest managers turned the uninvited guest away at the door, and the dishes piled up – and occasionally fell over, in the form of a massive forest fire.
Now, forest managers invite fire for “visits,” putting it to work clearing out dead vegetation and making room for healthier trees. They call such sanctioned fires “wild-land fire use.”
But does the welcome mat stay out in a season like the one we’re having now, with drought conditions creating the potential for extensive wildfires?
The answer appears to be yes.
Local forest managers have used managed fire on twice as many acres this year as they did last year at the same time, said Roy Hall, associate director of fuels management for the Southwest region of the U.S. Forest Service.
And forest managers are prepared to allow this summer’s wildfires to burn in certain areas without much interference.
But ask any mountain community resident and they’ll say fire is not welcome in their home, despite having settled in a forest that needs fire for its health.
Let it burn
“A huge challenge of 2006 is we’ve got more human habitation adjacent to and living in these fire-adapted ecosystems,” Hall said.
Sanctioned wildfires can burn for weeks, even months. They can be human- or nature-caused, but nature and geography, not humans, extinguish them.
In an unmanaged ecosystem, fire visits ponderosa pine forests every seven to 10 years. At higher elevations in mixed conifer forests with a variety of trees, fire comes every 90 to 200 years.
Before humans started putting out wildfires, mature ponderosa pines would have trunk diameters of 3 to 5 feet, Hall said.
Having skipped these cycles, mature trees grow in thick clumps competing for nutrients and light. They are much smaller, less than 1 foot in diameter, and more likely to die, he said.
In these unhealthy forests, dead trees are standing fuel for fires.
Prescribed burns or wild-land fire use can help clear these standing fuels.
So far this year, forest managers in the Southwest have intentionally burned 86,000 acres, Hall said. Last year, they burned about 42,000 acres.
When a fire does start in an off-cycle forest, it can burn hotter and harder than it would naturally.
That happened in Yellowstone National Park in 1988. Years of wet weather allowed fuel loads to build up, and when fires started that summer, firefighters couldn’t bring them under control. More than a third of the park burned, destroying dozens of structures and killing wildlife, according to the National Park Service.
One result was a fire-management plan for the park that calls for letting some fires burn naturally.
A sanctioned fire can reset a forest so future fires will burn with less destruction.
No areas in the Sandia Mountains have been selected for wild-land fire use because most areas have homes, businesses and other assets, Cibola National Forest spokesman Mark Chavez said.
“It’s just not feasible,” he said.
Some forest areas near Pecos, Jemez Springs, Chama and Cuba are possible candidates for sanctioned fires, but only if the fire starts in a remote area with low threat to “values” in the woods.
Values include archaeological sites, homes, animal or bird sanctuaries, municipal water supplies and power lines.
Adapted to fire
“Fire to our Southwest forests is really like rain to a rain forest,” said Bryan Bird, of the Santa Fe environmental advocacy group Forest Guardians.
Not only do fires make way for new growth, but certain plants and trees also rely on fire for their survival.
Here are a few:
Lodgepole pine seed cones are stuck together with resin and need fire to melt them open.
Fire pushes perennial bunchgrass to produce extra seeds and flowers.
Fireweed flourishes in soil that has hosted a fire, hence its name.
Aspen trees need fire to thin vegetation so they have enough access to light. The fall display of aspens around Santa Fe is a product of fire opening the way for their healthy growth.
Other shrubs and trees that survive fires grow a toughened bark which, after the fire, helps repel pests, snacking animals and fungus.
Sources: Forest Guardians; Tribune research
`It’s a big deal’
When deciding whether to let a fire burn or fight it, the fire operation team, which includes state and federal agents, quickly consults archaeologists, landowners, utility companies and anyone else who might have a value at stake.
“Once we go through the process, it’s a long-term commitment,” said Tom Johnston, fuels specialist for Santa Fe National Forest. “We manage it every day, map out where it’s going to go. It’s a big deal. It’s not like we just sit back in our chairs and watch it.”
Bryan Bird, of the Santa Fe environmental advocacy group Forest Guardians, said that while forest managers recognize the importance of fire in healthy ecosystems, there still is resistance to the idea.
Instead of wild-land fire use, Bird said, there is an emphasis on the human equivalent of fire: mechanical clearing and thinning.
“It is driven by public fear” of wildfire, Bird said.
Some may recall prescribed burns that got out of hand, like the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, which roared out of control and burned hundreds of houses in Los Alamos.
Mechanical thinning is a good idea in forests close to communities, Bird said, but forest managers often try to thin in deep forest areas far from substantial home settlements. Back there, he said, burning would be better for the ecosystem.
“You can’t fireproof forests, but you can fireproof communities,” Bird said.
Even if an unnaturally hot or large blaze scorches a forest, it will rebound back to health, though it may take years.
“It’s just Mother Nature’s way of resetting the clock,” Hall said.