Fire ecology aims for safer fire seasons

-A A +A
By Carol A. Clark

Bandelier National Monument has been collecting fire ecology data since 1992 and says it plays an important role in creating objectives for prescribed burns and evaluating the short and long-term effects of fire on its vegetation communities.

“The data helps us decide if our Fire Management Program is on the right track or if we need to adjust our actions,” Bandelier Superintendent Brad Traver said in a release. “It also helps us decide which areas in the park are priorities for fire treatment and which areas should be treated at a later time.”

Fire Management Officer Gary Kemp said park managers recently made a decision not to implement a landscape-scale prescribed fire in the Escobas Mesa area.

“Data show the area is ecologically in good shape right now,” he said. “We only need to burn a buffer zone along the highway.”

Fire Ecologist Laura Trader added, “The fuel loading is still very low. Smaller diameter trees are low in density. Grasses and wildflowers are relatively abundant.”

Before widespread fire suppression began in the early 1900s, frequent, low intensity, surface fires maintained an open ponderosa pine forest with individual trees or small clumps of trees spaced widely apart, carpeted with grasses and wildflowers.    

“We’ve been doing burns around town for the same reason,” Los Alamos Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal Michael Thompson said Friday. “A hundred-plus years ago, a fire from large lightening strikes burned every 10 years. We (humanity) moved in and the forests thickened.”

LAFD has been conducting on-going smaller controlled burns for some time, he said. To be conservative around town, firefighters have been cutting and compiling the excess and waiting for snowfall to burn it.

“It’s looking dry right now and if we don’t get moisture pretty soon we’ll begin putting up fire danger precautions,” Thompson said.

The Escobas Mesa area is some 3,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest located south and east of the junction of NM 4 and NM 501 near Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The mesa burned intensely during the 1977 human-caused La Mesa Fire.

More than 20 years later, fire managers conducted a prescribed burn in the area in the spring of 1998 and 1999. Fire ecology data collected during the last 12 years shows it was a success.

“We will continue to collect data and use it to help us decide when to burn that entire area again,” Kemp said.

Bandelier is planning a 200-acre prescribed burn in the Escobas Mesa area this year. The burn is intended to create a buffer along the park boundary to help reduce the threat of wildfire to LANL and the Los Alamos townsite.

The public is invited to join Bandelier staff for an Open House from 4-6 p.m., March 12 at Mesa Public Library to discuss the upcoming Escobas Mesa prescribed burn.

For information regarding Bandelier’s planned prescribed fires or for information regarding other fire management projects at Bandelier call 662-7065 or email band_fire_comments@nps.gov.