Image: NASA Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team.

The largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the Whitewater- Baldy Fire has been burning for weeks through the Gila National Forest.  A lightning strike started the blaze on May 16th. As of today, June 9th, the fire has burned 274,838 acres, but thanks to more than 800 people fighting the fire, it’s 32 percent contained. (Stats: NFS)

Although the 2012 was predicted to be another big burn year, the total acreage burned so far this year is just below the 10-year average. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 20 large fires are currently burning across the country. Nearly 200 large fires have already been contained, and the total acreage burned is getting close to 900,000. In early June of 2011, 3.5 million acres had already burned. (Numbers from the NIFC)

As the Whitewater-Baldy fire burns across the Gila National Forest, it is becoming part of a landscape scale experiment in fire management for the arid west. For several decades, the forest managers there allowed smaller fires to burn naturally through the forest when they didn’t threaten lives or property. Preserving this natural fire regime burns out the underbrush and dead and downed trees, instead of allowing those fuel sources to accumulate for decades under fire-suppression policies (An abstract on the bad science of fire suppression)

In many western forests, fire was historically a healthy part of the ecosystem, burning at a low intensity, clearing out dead trees and undergrowth, while the healthy canopy, for the most part, survived.  Today, the fires that make the news are enormous, hard to control canopy fires that kill all the trees and costs millions of dollars to contain, and millions more the stabilize and rehabilitate after the fires are out.

The large, high-intensity fires that have characterized the past decade, like last summer’s Wallow fire in Arizona, are now understood to be a result of the fire suppression policies of the past century. So much fuel accumulated in areas where most of the small, easy to contain fires where put out that it set the scene for high fuel, fast and furious fires that couldn’t be controlled.

This New Mexico fire, once safely out, will provide researchers and land managers an opportunity to see how the previous small natural and prescribed burns affected this large fire. According to scientists who spoke to the AP last week, early indications are that this fire has burned at a much lower intensity that most of the other large southwestern fires that have made the national news in recent years. (Here’s the great AP fire science article). If the Gila National Forest is less damaged; for example, with more surviving trees or more unburned islands, it will provide support for the benefits of fuel reduction through small natural and prescribed fires.

Across the west, we’re in a fire debt, according to many fire scientists.  We can pay off the debt through enormous, destructive fires or expensive, expansive fuel reduction treatments, including controlled fires.  Hopefully, this Gila National Forest fire will provide evidence that can help scientists design fuel reduction treatments and way to manage pseudo-natural fire regimes that could help us pay down that fire debt before we lose the rest of the western forests to wildfire.

Gila National Forest, Image: National Forest Service



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2 Responses to Learning from Fires

  1. John Lovell says:

    True for pinon, ponderosa, and other relatively open forests, but what about systems adapted to crown fires… those which historically burned to the ground in large, destructive fires. These forests require adult mortality for recruitment. Forest like the Lodgepole in Yellowstone and Colorado or Bamboo in Patagonia? Any thoughts about these systems?

    • kate.prengaman says:

      Hi John! Your point about Lodgepole Pine forests is right on- some ecosystems do need crown fires to open up the canopy for new trees. I don’t know anything about Patagonian Bamboo (but I’ll look into it now) but I think that although the North Rocky Mtn forests do need fire, there is evidence that historic fires, even though very destructive, were more common, but small and less severe before we put fire suppression policies into place and allowed fuel to accumulate in these unprecedented ways. It’s always hard to watch a mature forest burn, but I think the overall lesson is that sometimes we need to, right? It would just be nice if there was more widespread support for prescribed burns to spread out the impact and reduce the risk of megafires. Speaking of megafires, hope all is safe and not to smokey in Fort Collins.

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