Using Fire To Prevent Fires

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Pile burnings continue throughout the county

By Kirsten Laskey

A huge smoke plume casting a black smudge in the sky can certainly cause uneasiness for onlookers, especially in Los Alamos after the Cerro Grande Fire. However, residents need not worry when seeing smoke rising from Pueblo Canyon because those clumps of fire are being set professionally in an effort to prevent future wildfires.
U.S. Forest Service, under contract through Los Alamos County, began burning piles Jan. 13. Bill Armstrong of the Santa Fe National Forest is supervising the project with Open Space Specialist Craig Martin. Armstrong said the intention is to hand over to the county administration forest conditions that can be maintained.
“Forests are messy,” Armstrong said. “Conducting the burnings is like cleaning out a closest. If fuel levels are down to a safe level then burn maintenance is easier.”
Los Alamos County received $12 million from FEMA for forest thinning work. The county spends $50,000 a year on fire maintenance.  
Workers gather pieces of pitch-filled wood, which Martin described as a gooey mix of organic chemicals found inside of trees. The wood is stacked in piles, doused with a
mixture of diesel and gasoline and ignited with drip torches.
The burning pitch causes the black smoke seen during pile burning and is not the result of burning tires, as some may have thought, Martin said.
The county determined that about 500 acres were in critical need of burning and have completed 400 acres as of Monday morning, he said. Burnings have occurred on the land between the North Mesa picnic grounds and the roundabout, east of Gauje Pines Cemetery, between Pueblo Canyon and the Los Alamos Golf Course and east of Camino Redondo.
The whole purpose is to prevent fires, Martin said, adding that fires spread along the ground and when trees are bare, flames engulf the trees, which would put nearby homes at risk. Thinning the forest and burning the piles  reduces that hazard.
“We’re trying to eliminate the threat of embers being carried into neighborhoods,” Martin said.
Work is being done to reduce the amount of burnable material on the ground now because if it caught fire in May, it would burn hotter and spread faster. A number of factors are in place that makes this a safe time to conduct the burnings.
First, Martin said there is snow on the ground and the temperatures are low. The trees have moisture, which helps control the fires.
When the wind picks up while conducting burnings, everyone freezes, Martin said. They worry it will make the trees ignite, but the wind pulls smoke away and makes the piles burn faster. The pile burnings are always monitored, he said
Martin said the Forest Service lets the fires burn as long as possible. As of this morning, crews will put out fires due to the smoke.  
“It’s been really good as far as smoke disbursable,” he said.
No one likes burnings, Martin said, but they are necessary and he is able to relate to those who are impacted by burnings because it’s also happening near his own backyard. He is able to schedule burnings around cross country practices, various school schedules and other community events.
“I will say I think due to the work of Craig Martin I couldn’t have asked for better social and political aspects,” Armstrong said.  
Pile burnings will continue Saturday and Sunday.