Carson National Forest to resume prescribed fire operations | Environment
Carson National Forest firefighters are preparing to resume mandatory firefighting operations this winter, with the first controlled burn in nearly a year scheduled to take place as early as February 7 west of Tres Piedras.
An open house on the Willow Piles Prescribed Fire and future projects in the Tres Piedras area was held on Wednesday evening (January 25) at the Tres Piedras Ranger Station, 22280 US 64, Tres Piedras, NM 87577.
The Willow Piles fire, which can only continue under appropriate conditions, marks the Carson National Forest’s first fire since the US Forest Service National Prescribed Fire Review was released by the US Department of Agriculture in September. The last prescribed fire on the Carson was a stake fire conducted near San Cristobal on March 16.
Last May, about a month after a winter stake fire in neighboring Santa Fe National Forest reignited and merged with a runaway mandatory fire near Hermits Peak, US Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a statewide shutdown of the prescribed firefighting to the conclusion of the review.
The Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire grew to over 341,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in state history. It caused massive damage to property, infrastructure, watersheds and local economies. Thousands of residents in four counties were displaced during the blaze’s busiest months, which was declared fully contained on August 21.
“We are thoughtfully moving forward with our prescribed fire program,” said James Duran, Carson National Forest supervisor, in a press release. “I want to make sure employees are learning about the new guidelines and create space for community conversation as we plan further mandatory forest firefighting.”
After Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Debbie Cress was redeployed after the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire, Duran was tapped to temporarily replace her and oversee both Carson and Santa Fe National Forests. With the announcement last Friday (Jan. 27) that Shaun Sanchez had been elected Santa Fe’s new acting supervisor, Duran only returned to service as supervisor of Carson National Forest. Sanchez will start his new job on Monday (February 6).
“We appreciate James stepping in to take the lead over both Carson and Santa Fe at an extremely challenging time,” said Michiko Martin, ranger from the Southwest region, in a press release.
Experts recognize mandated burns as an essential tool that can reduce the risk of catastrophic fires by removing hazardous fuels and also promote improved forest health by returning nutrients to the soil. Fuel specialists write prescribed fire plans that identify or prescribe the best conditions in which to burn forest vegetation and debris to ensure the best results are achieved. Combustion plans take into account temperature, humidity, wind, vegetation moisture and smoke propagation conditions.
Residents and local officials have criticized the forest service for pushing ahead with the mandated burn that grew into the Hermits Peak Fire during strong spring winds, but Carson National Forest has no plans to ban controlled burns on a seasonal basis, according to a spokesman . However, new contingencies were added to the fire plans.
The spokesman told Taos News that “detonations are now only authorized for a 24-hour period; when this period expires, the authorization must be re-evaluated and authorized.”
In addition, the spokesman said that the burning of Willow Piles will be different from previous actions “in that there will be more frequent patrols for a longer period of time after ignition.”
New burn plan checklists, which include a “human factors and stress check-in,” will also be used, the spokesman said.
“If conditions become unfavorable, there is an increase plan for more staff; and tools such as drones and satellite imagery can be deployed as needed and are available to us to assist in monitoring,” the spokesperson continued, adding that due to the high amount of snow on the Willow Piles project, “the number of personnel who the plan requires is small.”
The Forest Service’s national fire management strategy focuses on long-term forest health, and this strategy includes reducing forest fuels and using prescribed fires in the landscape. To maintain resilience, fire-adapted forests in the Southwest region must experience regular fire disturbances. If, after the mandated fire is complete, a future wildfire reaches this area, the lack of accumulated debris and ladder fuel will likely change the fire behavior to a less intense, more manageable surface fire.
Ignitions at the Willow Pile Prescribed Fire Project could begin as early as February 7th. An exact ignition date depends on weather and fuel conditions meeting the regulations outlined in the project fuel plan. Implementation announcements and updates are posted to the Twitter feed.
500 acre thinning burn stacks can be treated in an area south of US 64 between Tres Piedras and Hopewell Lake. A total of 53 inches of snow has fallen in the region so far this season, according to the latest data from the National Water and Climate Center. 95 acres were completed in the winter of 2022. Additional acres will be tackled in the coming years as mechanical thinning is completed.
The area has been the focus of commercial timber sales and forest thinning to reduce stock densities, improve foraging for wildlife and facilitate the reintroduction of fire into the landscape. It is one of many projects under the Rio Chama Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project, which spans 3.8 million acres in New Mexico and Colorado, including 800,000 acres within the Carson, to improve and conserve water quality and watershed function and restore natural fire regimes with prescribed fire, among other goals.