In 2011, Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico experienced what was at the time the largest wildfire in state history, the Los Conchas Fire.
“Its initial rate of spread, it burned like 40 thousand acres overnight. It was a burning an acre a second for about 14 hours straight.”
That’s Jonathan Coop, a professor at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison. Like any forestry expert living in the Western United States in the past century, he pays close attention to how land managers deal with wildfire. “We’re concerned about changing fire regimes across the Western US and globally, and what the implications are on our forested systems.”
“One of the greatest challenges with using fire as a tool on the landscape is a public aversion to it.”
That’s Ryan Walker, a graduate student at Western State and the lead author of a study published in the Journal Ecosphere, co-authored by Coop and researchers from the US Forest Service and the National Park Service.
“This study really compliments research that’s been going on for probably the past two decades that have recognized this effect of our policy of fire suppression.”
Within the more than 150 thousand that burned in the Las Conchas fire were pockets that had seen either man made or naturally occurring fires, or in some cases both. They wanted to know if those pockets had recovered more successfully. They combined satellite imagery with data collected in the field. Their findings may not surprise you. Here’s Jonathan Coop.
“Places that had had the most fire in the past, were the most likely to have forests still persisting through this really big fire and was really extreme.”
This isn’t exactly a new idea in the field of wildfire management. Long gone are the days since the Forest Service were issued a now infamous directive, to have all wildfires extinguished by 10am the next day. But the residual effects of those policies remain.
“The recognition is there, but the culture of fire suppression is so ingrained that we’re still not letting fires burn as they should, as they normally would have,” said walker. “We were building on that understanding that fire is a necessary process and that when you remove that process we wind up with adverse conditions that lead to a catastrophic event. We knew that there was some nuance there that could teased apart. And that nuance was this secession of treatments, applications, prescribed fire, managed fire. There are all these recommendations that these things should be used.”
“It’s really challenging for land managers to go out there and just start applying fire everywhere. Because first of all, there’s houses out there. And people are scared, you know what happens if that fire gets away and comes down and burns the community, and that happens sometimes, you know there are risks,” Coop said.
“Hundreds of homes, thousands of acres, gone up in smoke (Just watching them burn, one by one.) It wasn’t supposed to happen this way…”
That’s dateline NBC’s coverage of the Cero Grande Fire in 2000. It was a prescribed burn that jump the firelines. 400 homes were destroyed. The US government estimated total damages at a billion dollars.
Eleven years later the Las COnchas Fire dwarfed what had been the state’s largest fire by more than 60 thousand acres. However, it was mostly wildland areas that were affected, with a comparatively small number of homes destroyed.
“Some other researchers went back, and they determined, that if it hadn’t been for that Cero Grande Fire, Las conchas fire would have probably just gone in there and wiped out most of that town. But because of that Cero Grande Fire, which was a huge traumatic incident, going out there putting this prescribed fire out there, trying to do ecological benefit and unintentionally having this huge adverse consequence. But that put this huge fuel break between the fire and the town, that probably saved the town,” said Coop.
That’s likely a difficult message for those who lost their homes in the Cero Grande Fire. It’s not the sort of thing that researchers like Walker and Coop typically get in to. In their eyes, their job is to keep information coming, in order to hone the best practices in the field.