Crews work to contain the Moon Mountain Fire on the morning of day 2. Photo credit: Kerry Gladden

Topic: Wildfire Type: Essay

Cooperative Thinning, Burning and Training Help Create A Better Wildfire Outcome

Authors: Mike Caggiano

I was concerned when I first heard a fire started on Moon Mountain. Moon Mountain is a large hill in the middle of Ruidoso, a small tourist town in the Sky Island region of southern New Mexico. A fire in that part of town was one of those watch-outs–one of those worst-case scenarios towns prepare for–and with drought conditions and 60-mph winds it had the potential to be devastating. However, the community had identified Moon Mountain—an area surrounded by homes that is managed by multiple jurisdictions–as a high-risk area in community wildfire protection plans years ago. I was part of the process that proposed, planned and implemented treatments there using a slew of federal, state and local funding sources, biting off small chunks one funding cycle at a time.

I was relieved when I heard that the fire seemed to be under control. Instead of being a disaster, this ended up being a mixed severity burn that the fire crews said behaved more like a controlled burn than a wildfire.

I was thankful for the firefighters who worked through the night, many of whom are my friends and colleagues. It was awesome to hear the fire chief brag about the coordination among firefighters from different agencies. One agency representative was even speaking about how the thinning efforts kept the fire on the ground, which enabled the fire to provide an excellent training and team-building experience for firefighters. They wouldn’t have been talking like that several years ago.

Smoke from the Moon Mountain Fire billows behind Ruidoso High School, which was evacuated soon after the fire broke out. Photo credit: Kerry Gladden

I thought about how the community had wisely invested in landscape resilience. I also thought about all the time I spent on that hill working on thinning and restoration projects, and all the time we spent in meetings planning and securing funding for that work. That wasn’t as exciting as being on the fire line, but it’s just as important, I suppose. Moon Mountain is where I first learned to mark trees, and I am thankful to all the foresters and contractors I have worked with up there over the years. The work we did, reducing the fuel load and removing ladder fuels, set the stage for the firefighters to keep the fire on the ground and out of the community.

I am also thankful for the community’s investment in an integrated fire response approach, which surely helped on this fire. After a fire in 2012 burned 250 homes, community and agency relations were at a low point (the fire chief certainly wasn’t bragging like he is now), and the community came together anyway to implement a cooperative burning program. The U.S.D.A. Forest Service hosted prescribed burns and invited local firefighters to come and get experience. Several dozen local firefighters have participated in this program since its inception, and it continues to contribute to a safe, effective and coordinated response.

Efforts like this, combined with the commitment to thin and treat the landscape in high-hazard areas, set the stage for the successful response to the Moon Mountain Fire.

3 thoughts on “Cooperative Thinning, Burning and Training Help Create A Better Wildfire Outcome”

  1. Mary Huffman says:

    Fantastic to learn of this turnaround. Looking forward to hearing more in the future!

  2. Congratulations to all the funding agents, collaborators, planners, thinning crews, firefighters, managers and visionaries. I remember the first time I drove through Ruidoso in the 90’s, I thought “this is how you get people killed and burn a town down. I don’t think any other town in American has a more flammable disposition. Mike, the work that you and others did and continue to do is exactly how we are going to protect communities all across the country. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. Now let’s all get back to planning our next series of burns.

  3. Tony Cheng says:

    Investing in cooperation and collaboration on the front-end is often poo-poo-ed by a lot of folks as not a good use of time and resources. Just spend the money on implementation. This is a great example of how the very process of front-end cooperation led to good outcomes all the way through to an actual fire incident. Preparing a landscape to receive desired fire behavior and effects requires preparing community-based and government organizations in the pre-, during, and post-fire phases. This years-long work isn’t headline-grabbing nor will it make CNN like tanker drops, but is far more worthy of public investment.

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