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Rain just one factor in reopening of Santa Fe National Forest

July 15, 2018

Two trekking poles clutched in one hand, Emmy Koponen knelt and grabbed a handful of dry desert grass. The brown strands broke apart in her hand.

“You can pick up any of these guys and they are still dry fire starters,” the 66-year-old Santa Fe woman said.

Koponen had set out Tuesday to hike the 1.6-mile Black Canyon loop trail in the Santa Fe National Forest after it reopened Monday. Concern over the potential for wildfires during drought led to the June 1 closure.

“It’s beautiful up here,” she said as fluffy white clouds blocked the harsh, high-desert sun. “I was disappointed that the forest opened, actually. … The lack of moisture for so long is really disturbing.”

As hikers took to the trails the day after the five-week closure was lifted, a handful of visitors echoed those mixed emotions — a sense of joyful reunion tinged with a bit of anxiety — or even shock — about the reopening.

It had only been a few days since the rains returned after all.

But when federal officials convened to consider reopening the forest, their decision, they said, hinged on much more than rainfall levels. Humidity, risk of fire spread and weather forecasts — all closely monitored, complex measures — informed their call. And for the decision-makers on the ground, it’s crystal clear that the forest is in the clear — at least for now.

“I know there’s that angst out there,” said Terrence Gallegos, deputy fire staff officer for the national forest. “There might be someone out there saying, ‘I didn’t get any rain at my house.’ But it poured 3 inches [in parts of the forest].”

Some swaths received less rain — as little as half an inch. But other measures matter more, Gallegos said.

Take something called the “energy release component”: It’s a composite fuel moisture index that measures how much energy is available to fuel a growing fire, and it’s one of the most important numbers forest officials evaluate during fire season.

The higher the ERC, the “more explosive” a blaze can get, Gallegos said. When ERCs reach the 90th percentile, fire managers start to worry. In June, they hit the 97th percentile. That’s how energy-rich fuels were in June 2011 when the Las Conchas Fire scorched 156,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains.

On Tuesday, ERCs measured between the 60th and 70th percentile — a sign that blazes are manageable.

That’s not to say fires can’t start. They have. Since the forest reopened Monday, Gallegos said, firefighters have battled several small lightning-sparked blazes. But thanks to favorable conditions, the flames didn’t get far.

“We can’t keep the public out of the forest because we get a few fires,” Gallegos said. “That’s why we’re here. We’re here to manage those fires.”

Weather and humidity trends also informed the decision to reopen. Gallegos said he’s watched relative humidity climb in recent weeks, right on schedule.

“Come July, the Southwest no longer is in fire season,” Gallegos said. “It’s pretty accurate. It’s pretty well-documented.”

Higher humidity levels and lower fire risk don’t mean drought still isn’t wreaking havoc in the forest.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a measure of drought nationwide, still puts most of Northern New Mexico in extreme or exceptional drought, the two most severe categories.

And Gallegos said the forest’s thousand-hour fuels — the thick logs that would take longest to burn — still are bone dry. It will take a strong rainy season — or longer — to quench their thirst.

But it’s the fast-burning brushes and smaller pine trees that really can present a risk of fire spread. And Gallegos said those quick-drinking fuels have benefited from increased moisture and a couple decent downpours.

The Santa Fe National Forest was the first in a string of public spaces to reopen last week. Officials downgraded restrictions in the Carson National Forest to Level 2, meaning visitors are allowed but campfires are prohibited. Pecos National Historical Park and Los Alamos County’s public spaces reopened Tuesday. Hyde Memorial State Park and Fenton Lake State Park reopened Wednesday.

This is Terri and Dave Cavagnaro’s second three-month stint as volunteer camp hosts in the Santa Fe National Forest. Since the recent sale of their New Jersey home, the retired couple have traveled cross-country in a shining silver Airstream, making camp in state and national forests.

The Cavagnaros arrived at the Black Canyon Campground in early May and stayed through the forest’s closure to keep an eye on it. With so few people around, it got pretty lonely, Terri Cavagnaro said.

Cavagnaro said she was shocked to see the forest open again. She’d been told it would take two weeks of rain.

But still, as July approached, she noticed small changes in the forest. It felt a bit humid. Water started flowing in the nearby creek.

On Monday morning, visitors started streaming back in, she said. Dozens of hikers hit the trail — high traffic for a Monday.

Their forest zeal, she said, came as a bit of a shock, too.

“It was like they were given this huge gift that it reopened,” she said. “We’re from New Jersey. It doesn’t happen like that there.”

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