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Understanding fire dynamics

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Don’t fear living in the forest but learn to live smart

There is a personal irony associated with the Las Conchas and Cerro Grande fires.
Meanwhile, the jury is out on forest recovery and what the future holds for unburned parts of our beloved Jemez Mountains, especially if prolonged drought, a return to drier norms or, as many fear, global warming, continue the wildfire legacy begun with the 1996 Dome Fire.
Las Conchas also begs the question of when mountain homeowners will “get it,” that they must realize that that proliferation of often sick, stunted trees snuggled near their homes is dangerous — and unnatural.  
Too, there is the dangerous trend in many subdivisions of narrow, winding roads bordered by heavy timber.
If the state’s biggest wildfire, 10 times larger than the 1977 La Mesa near Los Alamos, the biggest to that date, doesn’t convey the threat from fires that are “manmade” beyond just the spark that ignites them, what does?
The personal irony is that few journalists have written as much about the volatility of the Southwest’s mid-elevation ponderosa and lower-elevation pinyon/juniper forests.  
I wrote my first such story in 1995, as researchers at Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos National Laboratory began to voice concerns about area forests.  
This was joined by outspoken U.S. Forester Bill Armstrong who warned in 1998 that Los Alamos likely would burn from a massive wildfire.  
He also warned that much of New Mexico would be on fire in prolonged drought, warnings not based on a gift of prophesy, but on Armstrong’s and researchers’ knowledge of how area forests once looked, how they now look and the inevitable implications of drought in forests where, from 1950 to 1995, timber populations exploded during one of the wettest periods in the Southwest in 2000 years!
Back to  personal irony.
When my ancestors arrived in New Mexico, their cattle were in livestock cars on the same narrow-gauge train arriving from Colorado’s Front Range via Chama and Durango, Col. From there, the cattle were driven south into New Mexico.   
That, livestock grazing, not fire suppression, was the beginning, by a margin of 30 years, of what I refer to as “super fires,” which after the 1996 Dome Fire, one Los Alamos resident stated accurately occur in “forests of gasoline,” which today’s forests have become.
In the 1880s, a fire like Las Conchas; Arizona’s Wallow or other super fires in recent years, including Durango’s Missionary Ridge that spawned fire tornados that tossed cars and RVs about like toys, could not have happened.  
Then, the Southwest’s lower elevation timber was a mere few dozen trees per acre, not today’s hundreds or, in ponderosa forests, sometimes thousands per acre.
With the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s, the number of cattle and sheep grazing on public lands skyrocketed.
No one could have known that those thousands of grazing animals, including elk artificially introduced to mountain valleys in the early 20th century, were removing essential grasses that fueled frequent, small, but critical “housekeeping” or ground fires.
Such fires were often ignited by lightning to roll placidly around the forest floor for months, consuming rubble and thousands of small trees sprouting beneath the towering ponderosas.
Such ground fires, unlike modern-day “blowups,” rarely harmed mature trees which had fire-resistant bark and branches far above fire level.  
But they kept thousands of “upstarts” thinned, so that the Southwest’s ponderosa forests were mostly open meadows dotted by 40, 60, maybe 80 trees per acre and carpeted in grasses, shrubbery and a blaze of wildflowers.
Of note, an area that Armstrong and crews thinned to historical norms, just a year later was awash in wildflowers and grasses.
The railroads also brought concerted logging that took the huge, far larger than “large” today, fire-resistant trees but left the exploding population of young trees.
The proliferating younger trees soon crowded the forests and became “ladder fuels” that carry fire into the forest canopy.  
Bad turned to worse with aggressive, organized fire suppression beginning about 1912, couched in a misguided belief that all fire was bad and that failed to realize that forests will burn, as nature intends, or catastrophically, as nature remediates what we have messed up.  
Sadly, in the large, unnatural catastrophic fires of today, which much of Las Conchas was, Nature’s job is made harder.  The very soil can be damaged by the burn’s temperatures, seeds are destroyed, wholesale erosion sets in.
With prolonged drought or climate change, some researchers question whether today’s massive burn areas will ever totally regenerate or merely become some sort of grass or scrublands.
Which brings me to another irony:  A log house near where Las Conchas began, near where the forest still smolders. The house stood surrounded by thick growths of timber, including dog-haired thickets, the sick, spindly growths of that happen when too many juvenile trees compete for too little sun, too little water and too few soil nutrients.  
Fire in such thickets is often a “blowup,” with potentially dangerous consequences, especially if roads too are lined with heavy timber.
Clearly, if drought continues, wildfire will continue as a troubling part of the Jemez Mountains’ and other ranges’ futures. I saw what happened to a nearly new fire truck caught in the blowup of the Dome Fire.  
Though parked in a roadway, it basically melted, and a couple a dozen firefighters deployed in “shake and bake” shelters nearby barely escaped with their lives.
We don’t need to be afraid of living in the forest but we do need to be smart and understand fire dynamics.  Homeowners owe it to themselves, their families and to firefighters to thin timber and remove flammables from near their homes.  
They need to have a plan to leave and define “safe areas” such as  parking lots or open meadows, should fire block their egress.     
Which brings me to the miracle of Las Conchas:  It churned through heavy timber in a forest filled with recreationists on a Sunday afternoon and no one was killed!

Kathleene Parker
 formerly of  Los Alamos