A Collaborative Controlled Burn in Northern New Mexico Demonstrates Fire as an Essential Ecosystem Process

A Collaborative Controlled Burn in Northern New Mexico Demonstrates Fire as an Essential Ecosystem Process

Written by Esmé Cadiente

As a new employee with the Forest Stewards Guild, I recently had my first opportunity to work as a firefighter on a collaborative controlled burn. I worked alongside highly qualified and experienced firefighters to apply a broadcast burn on State Trust Land managed by the New Mexico State Land Office (State Land Office). Our burn location was near Black Lake in northern New Mexico, and together, we safely returned fire to approximately 500 acres of ponderosa pine, aspen and mixed conifer forest. 

The burn was possible because of collaboration with Moreno Valley Fire Department, Angel Fire Fire Department, Terra Fuego Resource Foundation, BLM Taos Office, NM State Forester’s Returning Heroes Program, Santa Fe ¡YouthWorks!, Santa Fe National Forest, Taos Ski Valley, Fire Learning Network, US Geological Survey, The City of Santa Fe Fire Department, Wildfire Network and the New Mexico State Land Office. (See the bottom of this post for links to our partners’ web pages.)

Broadcast burning is an important part of building fire adapted communities and protecting homes in the wildland-urban interface from wildfire. The burn was a continuation of work that began in 2008 through collaboration with the State Land Office and partners. The goal of the project was to improve forest health, protect nearby communities from wildfire and restore the upper Little Coyote Creek watershed. As a newcomer to the collaborative burning process, I quickly came to understand that working with partners leverages resources and enhances learning and training opportunities. Furthermore, putting fire back into a fire-deprived forest grounded my understanding that fire is a key ecosystem process. A forest that has adapted to thrive alongside fire needs fire to be healthy, something this burn showed me firsthand.

Understanding fire as a key ecosystem process begins by understanding the origins of fire. Fire and forests are inextricably linked, the origins of both evolved together throughout the history of the planet. Without terrestrial photosynthetic plants delivering oxygen to the atmosphere and fuels to the landscape, fire could not exist. Thus, as plants evolved, the presence of fire was coaxed into existence from a recipe of fuel, oxygen and the final ingredient, a heat source—delivered by way of lightning, volcanoes, and later, human beings. As fire took its place on the landscape, plants adapted to fire in a myriad of ways including the development of the thick tree bark seen in our forests, timing of germination and sprouting that is stimulated by fire, and seed release (“serotiny”) that is triggered by fire. Fire is an essential ingredient in maintaining an ecological balance and forest health in fire adapted forests. However, forest fire is a phenomenon that often carries negative connotations for humans.

Fire brings with it smoke, heat, and ash, all of which can be alarming and misunderstood. On the contrary, these “negative” connotations that surround forest fires – smoke, ash and heat—are often positive for the forest in ways that are not immediately evident. Charcoal can increase water retention of soils, ash acts a fertilizer for new grass recruitment, heat stimulates germination in some plant species, and chemicals in smoke can jump start seed release for some plants. Increased grass recruitment post-fire, allows ungulates like elk and deer to experience excellent browse for several years after a burn. Also, some bird species depend on snags and other post-fire habitat for nesting and hunting.

My recent experience on the controlled burn showed me firsthand the truth in these statements. In particular, prior to the burn, the Forest Stewards Guild surveyed the area with the burn boss. While we were walking through a 2013 burn unit, we spotted a northern goshawk swooping delicately through the forest, hunting for her young that were nested high in a ponderosa pine. We also spotted elk and deer browsing on grass that had established in the burn area. The forest looked healthy, vibrant and full of life. Just beyond the State Forest boundary, the peaked roofs of houses poked through the trees. These homes were much more protected from wildfire now that the forest had been treated; burned and defensible space eliminated fuel that once could have carried fire to these homes.  

The Forest Stewards Guild has been participating in safely putting fire back into the forests around New Mexico and southern Colorado for the last three years. An important component of this work is to engage the public, including landowners, in the process. Their involvement promotes the understanding of fire’s social and ecological benefits. It is also helpful for stakeholders to see resource management goals being achieved with prescribed fire firsthand.

One of the greatest misconceptions about controlled burning is that all fires burn intensely and devastate the forest and wildlife. I too, carried this misconception with me until I learned that there are many ways fire can move across a landscape. Prescribed fire, when done properly, is not a devastatingly destructive force. It is an intentional application of a forest management tool. Under the right circumstances, it can restore forests, promote ecological health and protect communities from the threat of a catastrophic wildfire. Through partnering on collaborative burns, providing training opportunities and engaging the public, the Forest Stewards Guild is providing first-hand opportunities for people to understand the techniques used to implement fire, the science behind the decisions and the careful, deliberate ways that fire is intentionally and strategically reintroduced to the forest.

Special thanks to our collaborative controlled burn partners:

Moreno Valley Fire Department |Angel Fire Fire Department

Terra Fuego Resource Foundation| BLM Taos Office

NM State Forestry Returning Heroes Program | Santa Fe ¡YouthWorks!

Santa Fe National Forest |Taos Ski Valley

Fire Learning Network | City of Santa Fe Fire Department |New Mexico State Land Office | USGS  | Wildfire Network |


Photo: Firefighters gather in the mixed conifer forest to watch fire effects before proceeding. Fire behaves differently according to the weather and it is always important to watch the fire effects of a test fire to know how to strategically put fire on the ground. Photo: Esmé Cadiente.