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Lessons from a fire you probably don’t know about

November 26, 2018

The Venado Fire started from a lightning strike July 20 in the Jemez Mountains west of the village of Jemez Springs and near the Jemez National Recreation Area. As we all remember, we had just endured the driest and most extreme indices of any fire season on record without a major fire.

In a healthy forest, this would be exactly the type of wildfire firefighters would consider managing to mimic the natural fires that historically burned every five to 15 years here — mostly surface fire that cleared out fuels and benefited wildlife habitat, forage and watershed health.

The Venado Fire started in the middle of the monsoon season with higher humidity and frequent rainstorms to temper fire behavior, and in a relatively remote area of the national forest, away from homes and communities. But the forest here was anything but healthy — the area was heavily logged in the early 1900s, and fire, the keystone process in our ponderosa forests, was excluded for more than a century. The resulting forest was full of stressed, diseased and unnaturally dense stands of trees.

These unnatural forest conditions allowed the Venado Fire to grow quickly into an intense crown fire that “blew” through Joaquin Canyon, killing essentially every tree and scorching the soil, creating conditions ripe for significant erosion and flooding. At the height of the incident, nearly 300 firefighters were assigned to the 3,000-acre blaze.

And then, something remarkable happened — a fire raging so intensely that it was literally creating its own weather, “slammed” into an area that was previously thinned and burned. Within a few hundred feet, the fire dropped to the ground, allowing firefighters the opportunity they needed to fight the fire safely on their terms.

This is not an isolated incident of fuels treatments dramatically changing fire behavior. Last year, the Cajete Fire, which burned just south of the Valles Caldera National Preserve and threatened hundreds of homes, was “cut off” after burning into areas previously thinned and burned by fire managers. These are just a few of hundreds of examples from across the West.

The science and our real-life experiences in New Mexico are clear — strategic thinning and prescribed burns to return fire to its natural role in our ponderosa pine forests are critical to reducing the risk of wildfire to communities, ensuring firefighter safety, improving wildlife habitat and our watersheds, and protecting all the things we love and depend on from our forests.

The Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition is hosting a screening of The Era of MegaFires at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, at the Jean Cocteau Cinema. The Era of Megafires is a 60-minute multimedia presentation that combines the research of Paul Hessburg (Pacific Northwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service) with the visual storytelling of award-winning film company North 40 Productions. The movie will be followed by a panel discussion with local experts to talk about the risk of wildfire here in Santa Fe, the benefits and consequences of different types of fires, and what the Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition partners are doing to restore our landscapes and prepare.

James Melonas is supervisor, Santa Fe National Forest.

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