Working the flames – Taos News May 25th 2017

Early Monday (May 22) morning, a crew climbed out of a green U.S. Forest Service fire truck at “Drop Point One,” a bend in the highway and the middle of a 7,000-acre wildfire near Tres Piedras. Over the next six hours and with drip torches in hand, the crew walked down a creek bed covered in ponderosa pines, lighting the outer boundaries of the Hondito Fire.

Standing just 3 feet from the edge of the fire was Arron Ferro, a young firefighter from Santa Fe on assignment in this canyon in the Carson National Forest.

The fire burned low and slow. Flames, usually no bigger than a foot tall, creeped and crawled across the western-facing slope of the forest. Smoke, thick and sweet with ponderosa sap, moseyed into the sky in wisps. The omnipresent crackle was the sound of a fire methodically munching on millions of dry pine needles, branches and debris.

It looked alive, more than one firefighter said. And if the Hondito Fire was alive, it seemed to have the same attitude and gait as the crews keeping an eye on it: “It’s nice and easygoing. Pretty mellow,” Ferro said.

For more than a century, the Forest Service regarded any lightning strike as a bad omen. Whenever someone spotted smoke, someone put out the fire. But the tides of federal fire policy are changing.

That’s why, when a bolt of lightning struck a tree in the middle of an area already scheduled to get a prescribed burn, forest managers took a step back and decided to put the small, gentle wildfire to use, coaxing it into thousands of acres in order to improve the overall health of the forest and protect nearby residents from some unplanned and uncontrollable fire in the future.

The Hondito Fire started around May 13. By the time the forest crews discovered it May 18, it had grown to only 2 acres.

At that point, the crews realized a mix of moisture, humidity and wind created an ideal — and rare — window of opportunity to essentially use a natural wildfire as the starting point for an elaborately planned prescribed burn.

The prescribed burn had been 10 years in the planning stages. Forest managers wanted to reduce the amount of dead and down trees strewn across this section of the Carson, build up vegetation on the forest floor and encourage growth of flowering plants and grass. Letting a natural fire burn can improve the overall health of the forest, ecosystem and watersheds. Wildlife stands to benefit with more open spaces for foraging and grazing. Fire-dependent plants are finally getting what they need to thrive. And getting rid of dry trees — one fuel that drives a fire — buffers nearby communities around Tres Piedras against catastrophic wildfires.

“Everything is still pretty wet right now, but we will start drying up shortly, so it was good it happened when it did,” said Clifton Russell, a Forest Service spokesperson on the fire.

Beyond the weather’s cooperation, a relatively slow start to the 2017 fire season means there are resources — that is, money, time and personnel — to actually staff the forest at the appropriate levels necessary to manage the fire.

“We don’t get to see the stars all line up like this all the time,” said Eric Garner, Tres Piedras district ranger.

The let-it-burn approach is similar to how the Forest Service used the McGaffey Ridge fire last year to treat a swath of ponderosa forest near Llano Quemado.

Garner and the other forest managers were almost giddy the Hondito Fire handed them another picture-perfect chance to let a lightning strike take its natural course, but they’re also keenly aware of not coming off as overconfident.

They took a two-pronged approach to keep the Hondito Fire in check.

Helicopters handled the ignition and monitoring of the fire in its interior while crews on foot lit and are keeping tabs on the outer boundaries of the fire.

Nearly 100 people on crews with Taos Pueblo, the Carson National Forest and neighboring forests and districts are posted on the Hondito Fire.

Fire crews worked through Saturday (May 20) to cut a restrictive perimeter around a swath of ponderosa forest 4 miles southwest of Tres Piedras. But by the end of the day on Sunday (May 21), crews helped the fire grow to about 5,000 acres. From Taos, its plume of smoke dominated the western horizon.

Crews were still hard at work increasing the size of the fire another 2,000 acres throughout Monday (May 22). By nightfall and with the onset of dark skies, high humidity and cooler temperatures, “the fire activity cooled way, way down,” said Russell.

Fire personnel are staying put and monitoring the fire around the clock. As of Wednesday (May 24), rising temperatures and winds are in the extended forecast, which could up the activity of the fire in its interior.

There’s no end date for the burn, though the fire could be allowed to more than double in size to about 15,000 acres.

Smoke could still be an issue. Even after a fire is more or less out, it can smoke for a week, meaning the plume rising from Tres Piedras could persist into June. Those with respiratory conditions are advised to take necessary precautions as the burn continues.

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