The fifth in a six-part series in which the authors, Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard, recent graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, tour the United States, uncovering stories of people preparing for life in a changing climate.
This past summer, in much of the Intermountain West, a century of forest fire suppression compounded with some of the hottest, driest summers on record to send acres of forest up in flames. We met Bill Armstrong, a fuels specialist for the Santa Fe National Forest, and in a day with him were able to glimpse the aftermath of some of New Mexico’s most devastating fires. Armstrong is an anomaly: he’s a firefighter and a pyromaniac, a cynic and a visionary. He knows that the only way to stop the mega fires is to light carefully planned, controlled burns on our own terms. Doing so, Armstrong says, could do more than save the forests: it could reconnect people with a process that sets us apart from all other organisms and defines us as Homo sapiens.
(Note: This story does not represent the views of the U.S. Forest Service.)
—Allie and Kirsten
Driving through the Santa Fe National Forest, it is hard to believe that this landscape was once savannah-like, with grassy clearings opening up among the ponderosa pine. Now, there are about nine hundred trees crowded in per acre where there used to be forty.
“What you’re seeing here is a hundred years of bad decisions,” Bill Armstrong, a fuels specialist with the Forest Service, told us. “And now, we’re losing the forests.”
Armstrong, a twenty-five-year Forest Service veteran, has a job that requires him to fight fires, but he much prefers lighting them. Fire is the keystone process that has been artificially removed from the Southwest’s forests, and fire—if lit intentionally as prescribed burns—is the only thing that could save this landscape from the mega-fires that are already beginning to rage. For Armstrong, reintroducing fire to the Santa Fe National Forest is an act of redemption, not just of the forest, but of the very essence of what makes us human.
“We’re the only species that lights fires; we’re the only species that puts them out,” he said. “We’re the ultimate fire-dependent species. I think we’re hard-wired to it.”
And in a way, the story of how this forest lost its fire is the story of how we lost ourselves.
The legacy of a century of fire suppression
The Jemez Mountains have some of the longest-term fire records in the world, going back to the fourteenth century. Their trunks tell a story of fires that burned regularly, returning to tree stands every seven to eleven years. Until about 1886, when the fires abruptly stopped. 1886 marks the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, and with it large-scale cattle industry. The cows ate the grasses that once carried the fire along the forest floor, and as more people settled in the region, the age of fire suppression began.
In the absence of regular fire, the fire-tolerant ponderosa pine has been gradually replaced by less-tolerant fir and pinyon pine. Instead of only a few hearty survivors, almost all tree seedlings now live. The result is a forest’s worth of kindling ready to ignite at the next lightning strike or downed electrical wire. When compounded with climate change, which is reducing the mountain snowpack that quenches the forest floor and will mean hotter average temperatures across the southwest, the last century of fire suppression is now ushering in a new era: that of the mega-fire.
Burn, baby, burn
If the first decade of the twenty-first century was any indication, the naïve fire suppression policies of the twentieth century have come back to burn us. The thicket of fuel now available in southwestern forests means that the low-intensity fires that once sustained this landscape can quickly turn dangerous. Friendly surface fires that smolder along the forest floor at low heat have been replaced by “crown” fires that shoot into the uppermost branches of trees and travel quickly.
“Here in the Southwest, fire is inevitable,” Armstrong said. “The choice is not whether the forests burn or not, the choice is how they burn.”
In 2000, the Cerro Grande fire—a poorly planned prescribed burn that got out of control—burned 48,000 acres and destroyed 235 homes in the Los Alamos area. A decade later, in 2010, the Las Conchas fire, started by a downed power line, defied all odds by burning against the wind and downhill, decimating an acre per second and leaving about 150,000 acres of scorched pine stalks in its wake.
And with mega-fire came flood. When there is no vegetation to absorb rainfall, floodwaters whisk down the mountainsides, carrying sediment and pollutants into waterways. A creek in Los Alamos quintupled in flow after the Las Conchas Fire, and Bandelier National Park protected its visitor’s center from inundation with sandbags.
However, the recent fires and floods may just be a precursor of what is to come. Records going back to the year 1000 show that mega-droughts have periodically plagued this region, and climate change is projected to prolong southwest droughts in the future. When drought and fire suppression are compounded with other factors, such as the massive die-off of ponderosa pine due to the pine beetle, it’s easy to see why Armstrong nicknamed this forest the Santa Fe National Brush Field.
“All of this cackling about Armageddon?” he warned. “We haven’t seen it yet.”
Fighting fire with fire
The only real hope to prevent the monster fires of the future is to get to the forests first, Armstrong said: “Without appropriate fire, these forests are doomed.”
He took us to a site that was strategically thinned by clearing out brush and cutting trees to create firebreaks, or strips of open space. The area was then prescriptively burned, once in the early ’90s and again in the early ’00s. The site now has about forty-two trees per acre—close to what the landscape supported before the era of fire suppression. In 2010, when the uncontrollable Las Conchas fire reached this project site, it hit the ground, turning from a crown fire into a less intense ground fire.
In recent years, the Forest Service has gotten more sophisticated about prescribed burn project design. At one 280-acre project site we visited, the forest was thinned into a mosaic of patches with heterogeneous tree ages and species before the controlled burn. Since different ages and species of trees are susceptible to different stresses, diversity like this can serve as insurance.
“The patchiness provides for some resilience,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong would like to see prescribed burn projects on a much larger scale in the Jemez Mountains, but the required permitting—backed by laws about smoke production and endangered species protection—often slows projects’ progress to a crawl. And fire tends to be a hard sell in the arid southwest. Though only a tiny fraction of all prescribed burns escape, the ones that do weigh heavily in people’s memories.
“Prescribed burning is the only tool we have, but people won’t tolerate it,” Armstrong said. “When we fight ’em, we’re heroes. When we light ’em, we’re sons of bitches.”
In the last couple of decades, federal forest policy has gradually been updated to prioritize thinning and logging and to allow more flexibility in terms of letting wildfires burn in remote areas. However, the funding scale is still tipped heavily in favor of cleanup rather than prevention. In 2000, the federal government spent $33.5 million over a period of a few weeks to fight the Cerro Grande fire, and $441 million afterwards compensating for loss and implementing post-fire recovery efforts such as removing dead trees. For comparison, the Santa Fe Watershed receives $1.5 million a year in federal money for thinning—one of the main measures that could prevent mega-fires in the first place.
As Armstrong put it, “Congress won’t fund an ounce of fire prevention, but goddamn, they’ll fund the aftermath.”
Public opinion and politics around prescribed burns are slowly shifting, but it may be too little too late. The Forest Service currently treats about 11,000 to 20,000 acres per year with prescribed burns, out of 1.6 million acres in the Santa Fe National Forest. To replicate the seven- to eleven-year return rate of fire that occurred historically, between 145,000 and 229,000 acres would have to be treated with prescribed burns every year.
Armstrong is pessimistic about prescribed burning ever reaching the scale necessary to make a meaningful dent in the ‘brush field.’ “You might as well believe in the Easter bunny,” he said.
Standing in the Las Conchas fire scar feels a bit science fiction, Venus-like. At the top of a hill, the pines are black and empty, like negatives of themselves. The charred stalks of ash stretch as far as we can see in every direction. This, according to Armstrong, is “the future of forests in the United States.”
Eventually, these burned stands will fall over and aspen and juniper may begin to populate the landscape. The fiery end of the ponderosa pine ecosystem—and the floods that will follow—will be expensive, and there will be winners and losers, Armstrong said. But whether this constitutes ‘Armageddon’ is a matter of perspective: “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just dramatic change. The future is one of big fires, and then what’s left is left.”
Learn more about Allie and Kirsten’s road trip at www.adaptionstories.com.