Prescription for disaster: U.S. Forest Service prescribed fire burns out of control
They were told to evacuate, but the Atencio family couldn’t let the fire take their ranch headquarters.
With buckets and a garden hose, James Atencio and his wife Barbara and sons Matthew and Aaron protected their home, barns, corrals, weanling calves, bulls and more from the flames that leveled a house just behind them and came to within 50 feet of their New Mexico ranch home. Another son, Will, was protecting his own home across the valley.
“It just roared when it came over the top of the mountain. It was deafening. Trees were popping. It was a very hot fire. We felt the noise, we felt the heat from the fire. We thought we were going to catch on fire,” said 73-year-old James, who battled the blaze until 4 am, when his son told him to rest. “He said dad, you’d better take a nap. My wife and I sat on the couch for an hour but we couldn’t sleep so we went back out to help.”
Atencio said his cows survived the fire, finding safety in an open meadow that didn’t burn.
One neighbor lost several cows, three pack horses, pack saddles, tack and other saddles, along with a tack room. No big numbers of cattle deaths have been reported. “Most rely on open spaces” such as cleared meadows for their cattle to harbor, he said. “We’re at the end of our grazing season here where there isn’t any tall grass, it’s been grazed by the cattle.”
Francisco Sanchez, another rancher in the Las Vegas, New Mexico (the “original” Las Vegas) area said two fires are burning through the Sangre De Cristo Mountains (in north Central New Mexico, east of Santa Fe.) The first, known as the Hermit’s Peak fire, began as a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn, which got past containment efforts. Sanchez said it was lit on a “red flag warning” day for fire. It is thought that perhaps a spark from the Hermit’s Peak fire lit the “Calf Canyon” fire is the one that burned through the Atencio ranch. The cause of the Calf Canyon fire is still under investigation. The two fires have merged into one.
Much of the approximately 260,000 acres that have burned is forested, said Sanchez.
“Much of the fire’s growth is in thick, heavy timber and steep, rugged terrain,” says Inciweb, the fire reporting site.
Sanchez and Atencio both say that poor forest management over the years has made it very difficult to gain control over the fire.
“They’ve been blaming these mega fires lately on climate change,” said Sanchez. “Maybe that has a little to do with it but in my opinion it is also caused by poor forest management.”
“The people with private tracts of land who have worked closely with the New Mexico Forestry Department to thin the trees, you can tell when the fire hits those areas, it slows down,” he said. “But there are a lot of places on federal land it just crowned and ran.”
Atencio echoes these concerns. “It’s been a long time coming. We kind of had a feeling it was going to happen eventually but not in the scope it did. It spread every which direction. We’re in an exceptional drought right now,” he said. “Our forest was devastated. We had a beautiful forest behind our meadows and now it’s just sticks, not even branches. Behind us is federal land and what burned with the federal land is our private forest,” he said. “When it got into private land with thinning projects, it was real low key, it wasn’t cresting or anything.”
“As a taxpayer, I want to know, where is the money being utilized? Nothing is being done to manage the forest. We have to be held accountable for our own personal actions. They have to be held accountable, too. It’s devastating.”
Some of Atencio’s cattle graze on the federal Pecos Wilderness, where motorized vehicles aren’t allowed, said Atencio.
“You can hardly walk through parts of the forest, let alone horses and cattle – they can’t get through some of it. It’s dead and downed trees. It will be devastating if we get a fire in the Wilderness,” he said.
Atencio has photographs dating back to 1875, when the forest was harvested and much healthier, he says.
“Right behind where the hills are, you can see a tree here and there because people used the wood for firewood, railroad ties. The forest was harvested. All these tree huggers, now there are no trees to hug. You can give them credit for this. It burned through the national forest and then came to our private land and it burned our homes.”
Atencio said several lumber mills now sit idle in the area due to lawsuits filed by anti-logging groups.
The Atencio cattle and other cattle in the area graze on federal and private land. Some graze in the Wilderness area for about three months, within the forest itself and also on high mountain meadows.
The grazing association, including the Atencio family, met with the U.S. Forest Service on May 13. So far, they will still be allowed to graze their cattle on their allotments that have not yet burned, beginning June 15, but if a devastating burn goes through their grazing areas, it could be two to three years before they are able to graze there. “That will put us out of business,” said Atencio. He said others would be forced to sell their cows, too, if they lose the ability to graze the federal land in the area.
FEMA is in the area, taking applications to help those with significant personal losses. “But we won’t know until later if it comes through,” said Atencio. They don’t know if they will be compensated for lost hay, grass, or other feed.
Due to drought conditions, Atencio and other ranchers have reduced their herd sizes. “The drought has devastated us. We don’t have the feed. I usually put up about 2,500 to 3,000 bales but this last year I put up about 250.”
Atencio appreciates Sanchez and Dr. Ashley Sanchez, DVM, (Cisco’s wife) for working with veterinarian organizations to secure donations for hay to help ranchers whose feed reserves were reduced to ashes. Local feed stores have also donated livestock feed as well as dog and cat food, Atencio said.
Strong winds and low humidity continue to push the fire onward, but forecasted lower winds may give crews a chance to rein it in soon, said Sanchez.
“This is fixing to be the biggest forest fire in New Mexico history,” said Atencio.
Ben Wudtke, Executive Director of Intermountain Forest Association knows a thing or two about how forest management affects fire. In the Black Hills National Forest, removal of trees has helped not only with parasites, but it has also made fires easier to control, he said. But now the U.S. Forest Service wants to reduce the number of trees that can be harvested, which Wudtke says puts the BHNF at risk of fires like the one in New Mexico and those that in California, Oregon, Idaho and other western states where logging is severely limited.
Wudtke explained that the mountain pine beetle infestation inspired tree removal in recent years. “There was a really concerted collaborative effort put forth to fight that war against the beetle. We didn’t win every battle but ultimately we won the war against the mountain pine beetle. That was all to target infestation. Ecologically, when you reduce insect infestation, typically, you reduce the risk of high severity of wildfire as well,” he said.
“Why has a disastrous fire (in the Black Hills) been avoided so far? Because we’ve been able to implement the forest management needed to avoid it. We average about 100 fires per year but they don’t have the fuel to burn like other forests, so they don’t grow out of hand,” Explained Wudtke.
In 2021, Wudtke testified before the Senate Ag and Natural Resources Committee in a hearing on forest management, forest products and carbon.
Senator Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, questioned Wudtke about prescribed burns.
“Talk to me about the role of prescribed fire in the active management of western North American forests, particularly those that have evolved from regular fire cycles such as ponderosa pine,” said Heinrich to Wudtke in the hearing.
“Prescribed fire plays a critical role in forest management,” said Wudtke. But he explained that prescribed fires are not safe in overgrown forests.
“It should be implemented on more acres. I think federal agencies should be looking at prescribed fire as a tool in a lot of places. The one caveat to that is that just as in the sense that our fires are burning unnaturally during wildfire season, those same unnatural conditions make it very difficult to implement prescribed fire safely, and to meet the objectives of those burn plans in a lot of areas. It’s a little bit of chicken and the egg, you need to first go in and create forest conditions that are conducive to promoting prescribed fire use. Often times, looking at historic forest conditions and tree spacing and making sure fuel is removed from the area before putting that needed fire back on the landscape. Fire can certainly be used as a main tool once those tools are put in place but it’s very difficult to just go in and use prescribed fire as a first step in any kind of treatment plan,” he said.
The New Mexico senator responded, “That’s exactly what we’ve found in many of these places where it may cost $1,000 an acre to treat something. To maintain it with prescribed fire is dramatically cheaper so creating those conditions for healthy maintenance really sets the stage for decades into the future.”
Now, Wudtke worries about a U.S. Forest Service proposal to cut logging in half in the Black Hills.
“As I said in that hearing, prescribed fire is an important tool in certain locations and forest structures, but the fact is that we aren’t going to burn our way out of this problem.”
Wuedtke “Last fall, the BHNF announced a three-year timber sale program that effectively halves the amount of fuels reduction work and timber they are selling.”
“That reduction will only serve to worsen the health of the forest. In the Black Hills, like other forests, we have seen amazing success in mitigating catastrophic fires through traditional timber management.”
“Just this April, the Wabash Springs Fire broke out during a period of moderate drought and 60 mph winds, only a couple miles outside of Custer and in an area of housing.
“Unlike so many other headlines, this fire only grew to 110 acres and the forest is still green following the fire – owing to a previous timber sale, follow-up precommercial thinning, and the quick response from firefighters.
“It is this type of work I was referencing last year and this portion of forest is set up for more fire, prescribed or otherwise, in the future,” he said.
“The BHNF is also undertaking a formal process to revise the Forest Plan, and everyone is hoping they don’t forget about the importance of forest management and timber harvest in achieving the forest conditions that support resiliency in the face of increased threats from fire.”
If you would like to contribute hay, feed or provide financial assistance, please contact the New Mexico Livestock Board.
April Riggs – 575-643-6162, email@example.com — Area 2 supervisor- Regional Operations Manager for NE New Mexico.
Matthew Romero – 575-643-6805 — District 18 supervisor.
Jose Miera – 505-203-9267 — District 18 inspector.
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