Putting Good Fire on the Ground in Northern New Mexico

The forests and woodlands of northern New Mexico are a mosaic of land ownership, with Pueblo and state parcels abutting Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land, interspersed with privately owned tracts. Given this jurisdictional patchwork, ecological management that moves beyond piecemeal treatment to address resilience at a landscape scale must be collaborative. This October, the New Mexico State Land Office, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Stewards Guild and The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network orchestrated exactly that kind of management action, bringing together a multi-partner team for a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (or TREX) in the Rio Trampas watershed.

The TREX model, developed by The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network, brings wildland firefighters of all levels together with the joint objectives of putting “good” fire on the ground, creating opportunities for education and outreach to communities at risk of wildfire, and providing a training space for wildland firefighters to build their fire and leadership qualifications.

A spate of fall rains delayed the Rio Trampas TREX start date, but once the vegetation and ground fuels dried out and conditions were favorable for burning the TREX began in earnest. Participants hailed locally from Bandelier National Monument, Picuris and Tesuque Pueblos, New Mexico Game and Fish Department, New Mexico State Forestry, and WildEarth Guardians, as well as from Nebraska, Idaho, Colorado, and even British Columbia and Spain. For two weeks, over 30 firefighters joined the Forest Stewards Guild and the Taos Bureau of Land Management in implementing a suite of prescribed fire treatments.

Today, forest managers across the western US are tasked with the gargantuan task of managing for heightened wildfire risk that has arisen, in part, from more than a century of federal wildfire policy based on full suppression. Without the frequent occurrence of low- to moderate-intensity wildfires that comprised the historic regime, many fire-adapted forest ecosystems have accumulated such a heavy load of vegetation, litter, and woody debris that when a wildfire does occur, it is much more likely to be extreme, “catastrophic”, or stand-replacing.

One illustration of this conundrum is the ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), which when mature boasts thickly-layered, flaky bark that makes it resistant to wildfire. In northern New Mexico it is easy to observe deep mats of duff that have accumulated at the base of these trees thanks to the long absence of fire on the landscape. This extra fuel can mean higher heat and a longer burn time, leading to root damage or mortality in mature ponderosas that under other conditions might emerge unscathed.

Two principal objectives of prescribed fire in this region are to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire reaching local communities and to lay the groundwork for an eventual return to a frequent, low- to moderate-intensity wildfire regime. Ideally, with each subsequent entry the fuel load on the landscape will be lighter, less smoke will be generated, and the landscape will be left more resilient in the face of future wildfires.

To these ends, the Rio Trampas TREX implemented a range of prescriptions across different parcels and topography. One aim of the prescribed burn was to reduce the slash generated from fuel thinning treatments carried out over the year prior. For these thinnings, local contractors selectively cut a mix of piñon pine and juniper to break up fuel continuity—creating gaps on the landscape between discreet groups of residual trees—and worked to remove ladder fuels from below mature ponderosas. Thinning prescriptions dictated size of gap cuts and whether slash should be piled in the open or distributed across the site in a lop-and-scatter approach. These decisions were tailored to each site depending on factors such as steepness of slope, aspect, erosivity, fuel load, and type of natural disturbance likely to occur there.  

The burn operation looked a little different at each site as a result of this diversity of restoration treatment. For several days, the TREX team worked to burn piles of slash left from a thinning treatment reaching from a saddle down a long north-facing slope to a draw, freeing the site of the piles of accumulated woody material. On a nearby steep, south-facing slope, a broadcast burn on a series of patch cuts thinned with jackstraw slash represented the final step in a treatment meant to mimic lightning strikes.

All told, the Rio Trampas TREX contributed to putting fire on 160 acres of New Mexico state and BLM land. Simultaneously, the implementation of the burn provided a venue for each participant to build wildland firefighting and leadership qualifications. Just as important were the connections forged across agency and organizational lines. After fifteen days of working together on the fire line, navigating steep and rocky terrain, spending long days on the mountain—often past nightfall—and taking part in an environment of mutual learning and training, the camaraderie was palpable. Now, back at our respective organizations and long after the persistent smell of wood smoke fades from our field gear, we will continue to build upon the partnerships formed at Rio Trampas on the common ground of wildland firefighting, forest management, and building resilience in the landscape. 

Thank you to Leonora Pepper, Forest Stewards Guild, for this TREX summary.