Old Flames Revisited

Fire in the wildland can be either beneficial or destructive, and sometimes both. It all depends on where, what and how it is burning. Fire is a natural event. The climatic pattern of spring drought followed by summer lightning storms has persisted for thousands of years in the southwest. These summer lightning storms ignited fires which burned unchecked across our landscapes. These fires determined the composition, structure and natural processes which make up the southwestern forests.

During the 1980's, scientific research was revealing the important role of fire in the environment while drought induced wildfires raged in an unnatural and uncontrolled manner. Data collected during fires like those which burned in Yellowstone opened new avenues of research and helped to build a knowledge base of predicting extreme fire behavior. We know from experiences with the La Mesa Fire of 1977, the Quemado Fire of 1993, the Dome Fire of 1996 and the Oso Fire of 1998, that the structure of our forests have changed. All of the above fires were on the Santa Fe National Forest. We have large concentrations of combustible material (fuel). Historically, frequent low intensity fires burned throughout both the Sangre De Cristo and Jemez mountain ranges. Most of these fires were caused by lightning, extinguished themselves naturally, and reduced the level of combustible forest fuels at regular intervals. Grazing in the 1850's removed the fine vegetation and grasses, which carried fire. Since the early 1900's, fuels have been allowed to build up to levels that may result in major catastrophic fires. If the forest is not allowed to do its "housekeeping" with low intensity fire, the inevitable consequence is higher intensity fires that are harder (and sometimes impossible) to control.

Decisions about fire management strategies are based on a multitude of concerns including safety of firefighters and the public, how fire might behave, air quality, vegetation, weather, funding, protection of property, cost efficiency, public sentiment and damage or benefit to the environment. We choose the most appropriate management response when a fire occurs.

Wildland fire will be used to protect, maintain and enhance resources and, as nearly as possible, be allowed to function in its natural ecological role. Human caused fires will always be suppressed.

Why are some fires put out and others allowed to burn? Good question! Human caused fires will always be suppressed. The Oso Fire in 1998, Dome Fire of 1996, La Mesa Fire of 1977, Porter and Cebollita Fires of the 1970's were put out because they were person caused fires. There was the potential for the Dome Fire to impact the community of Los Alamos and Los Alamos National Laboratory. During the La Mesa Fire, spot fires occurred from 1/2 to 2 miles ahead of the main fire front on Los Alamos National Laboratory lands. The Cebollita fire actually entered the community of La Cueva, narrowly missing homes. The impacts of these fires ranged from moderate to severe. Fortunately, no homes were lost on these fires but the cost to the taxpayers has increased from about $190 per acre to $1000 per acre, depending on the size of the wildland fire. The La Mesa Fire, for example, cost 3 million dollars to supppress. The Dome Fire cost $7.5 million.

Sometimes thousands of acres are ignited on purpose by the Forest Service. These fires burn under conditions which limit how hot and severe they can burn; these are Prescribed Fires. The cost of planning and implementing a prescribed fire is approximately $75 per acre, depending on the size and complexity of the burn.

Lightning caused fires can sometimes be monitored closely and held within a certain geographic boundary, without being suppressed. This can only be done in certain areas, under certain conditions, and only when the fire is in an area that has been designated for Fire Use.