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Smoke drifting through the canyons in Los Alamos usually puts residents on alert, for fear that there might be a wildfire close by. After the Cerro Grande fire a few years ago, the threat of another fire of that magnitude is a real concern for Atomic City residents; and rightfully so. There are certain times of the year, however, when smoke floating in the air is a common occurrence and can be expected. From late October to early March, Open Space Specialist Craig Martin and his team go about Los Alamos intentionally setting fires.
Prescribed burns must be conducted to thin the foliage in the canyons, which in turn, reduces the possibility of a fire getting out of control, should one start up during the warmer months. Recently, Martin and a team made up of Los Alamos County firefighters and employees from Bandelier and the U.S. Forest Service joined together to conduct a broadcast burn in Pueblo Canyon, in which 10 acres were burnt. The burn was set on Nov. 8 and was wrapped up by Nov. 10. “A broadcast burn is a fire that is set in which the fire is applied to the ground with the intent of burning grasses.” Martin said. “You’re covering an area, as opposed to a pile burn, where you confine the pile (of grass or wood) and burn it.”
A lot of thought goes into planning a prescribed burn. Martin said that he takes things like community events into consideration. A prescribed burn was scheduled for Halloween, however, because of the kids trick-or-treating on Main Street, Martin postponed the burn, saying that he didn’t want the kids out there with all the smoke in the air. Another burn was scheduled for Sen. Pete Domenici Day, but Martin postponed that one, too, because of all the events going on around town. The day that the skate park opened was also slated as a burn day, but for obvious reasons, that too, was postponed. “We could be completely conservative and never burn anything, but we went through Cerro Grande once, and that was enough,” he said. Martin said that this time of year is the best for maintenance burns because things don’t burn out of control. “It’s all a balancing act between community safety and comfort,” he said.
Martin said that when it comes to planning when to conduct prescribed burns, there are no cavalier decisions on the process. He said that weather conditions are the biggest factor in deciding whether to burn or not. “If it’s too hot or dry, the fire can get too intense,” he said. However, if it’s too cold, the fire can smolder for days, releasing lots of smoke into the air. “The New Mexico Environmental Department has strict policies on smoke,” Martin said. When conducting a burn, individuals are assigned smoke duty. This means that someone must watch the smoke and record things like which direction the smoke is blowing and what color it is. If conditions are deemed as unsatisfactory, the smoke monitor has the authority to call the burn off.
For more information on prescribed burns, including scheduled dates, visit the county Web site at www.losalamosnm.us.