Perdida a ‘beautiful’ example of ‘natural,’ historic wildfire

Perdida a ‘beautiful’ example of ‘natural,’ historic wildfire

03 September 2015

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USA: — From the window of his house in the Sunshine Valley, Chris Cote has watched through binoculars as a small wildfire has burned across the top of Cerro de la Olla since late June.

“It’s a beautiful fire,” says Cote, wildland fire coordinator for Taos County. “It’s doing a great clean up job, putting up white smoke, and burning very close to natural, historic conditions.”

The Perdida Fire was started by lighting strikes in late June and has been slowly but steadily burning for more than a month. By Monday (Aug. 31), the fire had grown to about 500 acres, mostly on the top of Cerro de la Olla (Pot Mountain), in the heart of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument west of Questa.

While record-setting drought on the West Coast has led to a tragic wildfire season in California, Oregon and Washington, wet conditions in New Mexico have given fire managers an opportunity to let naturally occurring fires like this do some ecological good with a very small risk of running out of control.

“It’s the fire that we wish was happening all over the country right now,” says Pat Pacheco, fire management officer with the Bureau of Land Management.

For decades, federal land managers were under a mandate to quickly stomp out any fire on public lands. But in hindsight, agencies like the Forest Service and BLM are realizing that keeping fire off the landscape allowed the forests to become overcrowded. Experts now point out that fire is nature’s way of cleaning out dead trees and underbrush, and keeping vegetation in check. Without it, forests across the West have become dangerously overloaded with fuels, experts now say. Those excess fuels combined with prolonged droughts have led to the kind of catastrophic fires we’ve seen in recent years.

That’s why Pacheco and Cote are so excited to see a natural fire burning in a relatively docile way. It saves the agencies time and money for planning a prescribed burn or thinning project, and greatly reduces the risk for a more dangerous fire in that area later on.

“This is something that we all want to happen,” Pacheco says. “And if we don’t allow this kind of fire, we’re going to have the kind of catastrophic events like the Las Conchas or Whitewater-Baldy [two devastating New Mexico wildfires].”

While the Perdida fire has been mostly allowed to burn on its own, Pacheco said a crew of five or six has been keeping on eye on its behavior to make sure it doesn’t burn too hot. He said much of the fire has burned dead, beetle-killed piñon, and grasses on the top of the flat-topped mountain.

A similar fire, the Commissary Fire, was allowed to burn about 1,700 on the Santa Fe National Forest earlier this year.

While fire managers are eager to see more of these small blazes ignite under the right conditions, there have been some concerns from residents, primarily about smoke.

The Taos News received two letters from residents near El Rito complaining about the fire. One complained that the smoke was causing coughing fits and and headaches. The other questioned whether the fire was having much of an ecologic benefit.

Richard Wallach, a fire planner with the BLM, said regional maps show the smoke in the area was most likely due to fires elsewhere, not the small blaze on Cerro de la Olla that was giving off a narrow column of smoke intermittently.

Even if some of the smoke were attributable to the Perdida fire, county coordinator Cote says part of his outreach has been explaining to people around Taos that fire is, and has always been, a natural part of the landscape, and that some smoke is inevitable.

“It’s getting people turned on to the fact that naturally occurring smoke is a beneficial thing,” says Cote.

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