Author: Flawed fire policies hurt Pecos River forests

·7 min read

Jul. 3—It's become common knowledge that the decadeslong practice of extinguishing natural fires made forests overly dense and more prone to big, destructive blazes.

Now, a Southwest author with a longtime affinity for the Pecos River region points to a portion of his 2016 book detailing how trees in this area grew thicker and larger — making the forest landscape more flammable, especially with the climate becoming warmer and drier.

The wooded area that Patrick Dearen describes in his book Bitter Waters: the Struggle of the Pecos River is a microcosm of the West, where the federal policy of snuffing wildfires that naturally thinned forests led to overgrowth blamed for feeding increasingly common wildland infernos.

Dearen said the book relates directly to the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire — the largest blaze in New Mexico's history — because part of the fire raged in the dense forest land near the Pecos River's headwaters.

The two-month-long fire has burned nearly 342,000 acres and destroyed at least 300 homes.

"This was inevitable," Dearen said in a phone interview. "Sooner or later it was going to happen because the stage was set in the 1890s."

Dearen, 72, who lives in Midland, Texas, has authored more than two dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, most of them with a Western theme.

He said he has done voluminous research over the years on the history and ecology of the Pecos River, which stretches 926 miles across New Mexico and Texas.

The federal government established the Pecos River Forest Reserve in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1892, and within six years, it grew to 431,000 acres. The reserve would become a national forest in 1907 and then become part of the Santa Fe National Forest in 1915.

In 1898, John D. Benedict, the forest superintendent, said a key mission was to protect the timber from destructive forest fires, Dearen said.

Benedict was among the forest officials promoting a no-fire policy that later would be more widely adopted.

The U.S. Forest Service viewed quelling wildfires as its chief mission after the agency was created in 1905. The agency began carrying out that objective with greater zeal in the early 1930s, with a policy of extinguishing new fires by 10 a.m. the morning after they ignited. That policy would continue until the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the timber on the Pecos lands grew much more dense through the 20th century as crews pounced on any new fire, Dearen said, noting that foresters tallied the proliferating trees over the years.

In a 1911 survey, they counted

50 to 60 ponderosa pines per acre, Dearen said. By the end of the 20th century, the number had grown to 1,089 per acre — a twenty-fold increase, he said.

At the same time, they found 1,348 Douglas firs per acre by the late 1990s, Dearen said. There are no records of how many of these fir trees populated the land in the early part of the century, but this is high density nonetheless, he said.

When the area first became a reserve, a third of it was made up of old wildfire burns and a third was open space, he said, so its natural state was spacious meadows interspersed with thickets.

That topography made it much less prone to mammoth fires, Dearen added.

Officials estimated fuel loads went from five tons an acre in the early 1900s to as much as 60 tons by the late '90s, Dearen said.

Aside from more crowded forests, hyper-vigilant fire protection led to tall trees towering over shorter trees, he said. This can create "fuel ladders" that enable a ground fire to climb up the shorter trees, then the taller ones, all the while intensifying as flames ignite their canopies into fast-spreading crown fires.

Crown fires have been a common challenge in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze, which was driven by high winds and low humidity against the backdrop of drought.

In the 19th century, the common view was timber should be protected from natural threats like fire to ensure maximum yields when logged.

Dearen said with the Pecos reserve, the motives went beyond commercial extraction. Foresters believed increasing the tree cover would benefit the Pecos River, he said.

In 1890, L. Bradford Prince, governor of the New Mexico Territory, called for the Pecos River's headwaters to be set aside as a park — contending that preserving the timber there was vital to irrigating the valley for farmers, Dearen said.

"They had all kinds of reasons why they thought the greater the timber, the greater the water flow would be," he said. "It seemed to be well-intended but not exactly accurate."

A 1902 forest reserve manual reflects their views, Dearen said. They thought denser timber would create more shade, prolonging snowmelt, while shielding the snow against the wind, which causes it to dry and evaporate, he said.

The trees also would keep the soil from washing away in heavy rains, Dearen said, citing the manual. That larger layer of soil could then absorb and store rain for drier periods, he said.

"But by preserving the timber, it denied nature its natural housecleaning," Dearen said.

Before people got involved, low-intensity wildfires would burn through these forests, which were only moderately dense, every five to 25 years, consuming grasses and debris, he said.

In the 1970s and '80s, forest officials resisted conducting prescribed burns and letting natural fires run their course but began embracing this type of fire management in the 1990s, said Tom Ribe, public lands advocate and author of a book that takes a critical look at the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire.

Both the Cerro Grande and Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fires resulted from prescribed burns gone wrong.

Like other prescribed burns, the intent was to consume the fuels built up over decades of agencies not allowing natural fires to thin them.

The Hermits Peak Fire formed when afternoon gusts blew the burn out of control in early April. It later merged with the Calf Canyon Fire, which ignited from a January pile burn that smoldered for months.

Some similar missteps were made with both the Cerro Grande and Hermits Peak fires, Ribe said. Crews felt pressed to complete the burns despite dry conditions and the risk of erratic spring winds, especially on sloping terrain, he said.

Ribe said he can understand why agencies want to do as many controlled burns as possible, given how much the fuels have amassed.

Though agencies have ramped up prescribed burns in the past two decades, they've barely dented the vast overgrown forests, he said.

"The budgets that they have and the personnel that they have, there's no way they're ever going to catch up with it," Ribe said. "They should've started on this back in the 1960s."

Meanwhile, the prolonged drought and climate change are compounding the problem, making the parched fuels more flammable and causing warmer, drier weather that's often not conducive for doing the much-needed burns, Ribe said.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change says the West is experiencing the driest 22-year period since A.D. 800, putting the region in a megadrought.

Human-driven climate change is compounding the drought's severity and lengthening its duration, the researchers say, estimating it could drag on to the 30-year mark before it finally passes.

Federal agencies might have to make the hard decision of not doing prescribed burns in the spring unless there's been an above-average wet winter, Ribe said.

"They have a smaller and smaller window to do the prescribed burns," he said.

Dearen said the changing climate combined with overgrown forests are a recipe for a catastrophic blaze like Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon — an unforeseen consequence of putting out all fires for most of a century.

"You take it being drier and hotter and the density of the forest and fuel loads, and it was waiting to happen," Dearen said.