Redondo Prescribed Burn and Diener Canyon Fire

Timeline of Events

April 16, 2018

What is a prescribed fire?

A prescribed fire, sometimes called a prescribed burn, is a planned fire used to help make forests healthier.  For about 100 years, people believed that all fires were bad, so wildfires were suppressed.  Later, they learned that some forests need periodic fires to stay healthy.  Without fire, trees become overcrowded and flammable fuels build up and become hazardous.  Prescribed fire is a valuable and necessary tool that helps us accomplish our restoration goals.  It reduces the potential for crown fires and fire spread within the watershed by removing surface, ladder, and crown fuels. This is critical to provide protection to nearby communities. 

What were you trying to accomplish with the Redondo prescribed burn?

The Redondo prescribed burn is one of 19 forecasted burns for the Bluewater Landscape Restoration Project.  This project is part of the Cibola, Regional, and National strategies to improve forest health and protect communities.  The project is designed to restore forests and watersheds and reduce the risk of severe high intensity wildfires through thinning and prescribed fire. 

Why are prescribed fires a good thing?

They reduce hazardous fuels, protect communities from extreme fires, minimize the spread of insects and disease, remove unwanted plants that threaten native species, provide forage for game, improve wildlife habitat, recycle nutrients back into the soil, and help new trees, wildflowers, and other plants to grow.

Why do you do prescribed burns?

Every prescribed fire has a defined set of objectives, ultimately designed to reduce forest fuels, reduce the risk of uncharacteristic high-severity wild fires, and improve forest health.  The Redondo prescribed fire was designed to meet all of these objectives.  Prescribed fires are a very important tool and one of the best ways that we know of to make our forests healthy again while protecting nearby communities.

How do you design prescribed fires?

Specialists write burn plans for prescribed fires.  First, they look at the existing forest conditions and decide what the desired, healthier condition will be.  Burn plans describe the conditions that trees and other plants will need to make the forest healthy again. 

How long does it take to plan and complete a prescribed burn?

It takes years of analysis and coordination to develop a burn plan.  We set parameters for low intensity fires that include weather, fuels, and the appropriate time to burn.  The Redondo Prescribed Fire was planned 5 years before it was implemented. 

Can you do a prescribed burn whenever you want?

No.  Numerous environmental factors must be aligned in order for a prescribed fire to successfully achieve the desired results; these include the current and expected temperature, wind direction, wind speed, live and dead fuel moisture levels, and relative humidity.  Our actions are science-based and not random; no prescribed fire is ignited unless we are in a very specific window of conditions so that we can achieve the desired outcomes

When was the Redondo Prescribed Burn ignited?

Fuel moistures were taken the week before the burn.  We verified the current and predicted weather forecasts.  Appropriate reviews were completed, notifications were made to the community, resources (crews) were ordered, and contingency plans were identified.  On the day of the burn, all parameters were reassessed, and conditions were within the prescription.  The decision was made to proceed.  We ignited the Redondo burn on Monday, April 9.  1300 acres were burned.  On Tuesday, April 10, another 510 acres were successfully burned.  At 2:00 pm, ignitions were stopped to keep the burning within the prescription level due to forecasted winds.  We stopped early to allow crews a day and a half to mop up and secure the edges.  By the end of Wednesday, we had secured the boundaries.

Why were you burning in windy conditions?

We were aware of the forecasted winds; the winds were a part of our burn plan and part of our decision to proceed with the burn.  We usually burn before a change in frontal passages to help move and disperse the smoke up and out of nearby communities.  If we only burn under high pressure with low to no wind speeds, we could cause more health impacts from heavy smoke not being able to disperse and move out of nearby areas.  Winds are part of the prescription that fire specialist monitor throughout the duration of the fire.

Our windows of opportunity for prescribed fire in the southwest are narrow and must meet specific parameters, including current and expected weather conditions, fuel moisture levels, and available resources, before a burn can be implemented.  In open Ponderosa stands, we use wind as an effective tool to keep the canopy from scorching and to keep fire at the ground level. The actual winds we experienced were higher than forecasted.  That’s why we stopped burning early and mopped up and secured the fire.  The next day, as anticipated, high winds occurred at 70 mph.

Did you ignite the Redondo in Red Flag conditions?

We did not ignite the burn in red flag conditions. We stopped operations a day and a half early and burned 1,000 fewer acres than planned because of the predicted high winds.  This allowed crews time to mop up and secure the boundaries.  We were not burning under Red Flag conditions (strong, sustained winds). 

Were you burning within the prescription window?

Yes, all activities were conducted within prescribed conditions.

Were crews able to focus their efforts entirely on the Redondo?

We had 76 people assigned to the prescribed burn, which is three times the required amount.  All available personnel were present.  We received two smoke reports early Thursday morning.  Some crews from the Redondo were shifted to initial attack on the two new starts - the Bonita Fire in the Zuni Mountains, and the La Mosca Tank Fire on Mount Taylor.  Later in the day, a spot fire occurred outside the Redondo burn boundary.  We called for additional engine support.  On their way to the spot fire, they encountered another fire which became the Bluewater Fire.

What were conditions like on Thursday when the Redondo escaped?

Conditions were extreme due to high winds and volatile fuels. Initial attack crews had to use indirect tactics because of the hazards. We had to pull people back from Bluewater and the spot fire to keep firefighters safe. The spot fire was named Diener Canyon.  Additional crews were ordered. 

Why did you change the name of the fire from Redondo to Diener Canyon?

Fire managers determined the Redondo Prescribed burn was no longer meeting the desired objectives, and it was declared a wildfire per Forest Service policy.  The wildfire was renamed the Diener Canyon Fire and crews began suppression actions.

When was the Bluewater Fire first reported?

While suppressing the Diener Canyon Fire, we received an additional smoke report near Bluewater Lake. Crews were immediately diverted to the Bluewater Fire.  Within minutes, it grew from 1 acre to 50 acres in the high winds.  By Thursday night, it was about 500 acres.

Was the Bluewater Fire started from the Redondo Prescribed Fire?

No, the Bluewater was not caused by the Redondo or Diener Canyon fires.  A law enforcement investigation revealed that the Bluewater was started by an abandoned campfire.

Why weren’t air tankers or helicopters used?

Air Support was unavailable due to the windy and hazardous conditions.  It is not safe to fly in high winds, and the water or retardant drops are not effective because they blow away before reaching the ground. 

Were evacuations really necessary?

Yes.  Our primary concern was public and fire fighter safety as well as protecting homes in Bluewater Acres, Bluewater subdivision, and Bluewater State Park.  McKinley County Emergency Services ordered evacuations based on the fire’s potential. This was later changed to a pre-evacuation order. The Bluewater State Park evacuated voluntarily.

Why did you bring in a Type 1 Incident Management Team?

On Thursday afternoon, a complexity analysis determined the need for a higher level of support.  The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team (“Team 2”), under the command of John Pierson, was ordered that evening. They transitioned with the Type 3 on Friday and assumed command of the fire on Saturday, April 14. 

How were all of these fires started?

The Redondo was a prescribed fire that was ignited intentionally to meet the desired objectives.  Fire investigators determined that the La Mosca Tank and Bluewater Fires were caused by abandoned campfires.  The Bonita Fire was also human-caused.  An investigation concluded that multiple spot fires from residual heat in the Redondo prescribed burn caused the Diener Canyon Fire.