Photo Credit: Workshop participants on an afternoon field tour. Photo by Mike Caggiano
Up until now, my view of fire adapted communities has primarily been interface communities with many homes interspersed through wildland vegetation that are at direct risk to wildfire. However, I recently attended a prescribed fire workshop in Wagon Mound, New Mexico that broadened my perspective of what a community working to become fire adapted can look like. Wagon Mound is a small ranching community in rural New Mexico, and our group quickly filled the small high school auditorium. Some, like myself, had come from several hours away.
Hosted by the New Mexico Prescribed Fire Council, the workshop provided introductory information for those interested in prescribed burns on private land. Topics discussed included laws, regulations, liability insurance, weather forecasting products, smoke management, and what goes into writing a burn plan. Experts gave advice and answered many questions from the audience. While several ranchers had been using fire for years, others used it in limited amounts or not at all, but clearly wanted to know more. There was a lively discussion that focused on using the right fire at the right time and place, to accomplish specific ecological objectives. There was a refreshing exchange of ideas that valued local knowledge and multigenerational perspectives. Attendees discussed the possibility of forming a prescribed fire association to facilitate neighbors helping one another and leveraging local resources.
After lunch, we visited a nearby ranch where the owner had begun to restore grassland from piñon-juniper encroachment. Historical photo comparisons show once open grassland slowly encroached upon by piñon and juniper trees. The rancher had used a multi-step process that first involved aerial application of herbicide to kill piñon and juniper trees, then, after three years, when the grass understory had sufficient fuel continuity, a prescribed burn carried fire through the stand. Finally, the grass quickly grew back after the fire, with increased vigor, with residual trees providing some heterogeneity and wildlife habitat. With additional treatment acres planned in coming years, it was great to see a passionate landowner who utilized fire as a management tool to implement conservation measures.
The meeting was supported by conservation districts, and resource and development councils, but in contrast to most of the fire mitigation meetings I attend, there was less representation from federal land management agencies. It was refreshing to see people take responsibility for managing their own lands, and search out information on potentially risky but ultimately useful tools to do so. The fact that over 60 people showed up for the meeting is indicative of a growing demand for this kind of information across the state. In places like this, small investments can go a long way toward encouraging sustainability and building capacity. Training, radios, supplies, and insurance products can all help build capacity, but it seems like less tangible things such as consulting with experts, support from neighbors and the community, and sense of accomplishment are just as important. The New Mexico Prescribed Fire Council is making plans to hold several introductory workshops across the state, and to host more detailed follow up workshops in areas where individuals are serious about reintroducing fire on the landscape.
For me, the meeting highlighted the various ways in which communities need to coexist with fire, and how diverse fire adapted communities can be. In most of the communities I work with, years of fire suppression and fuel accumulation has increased the wildfire hazard to homes, and fire is seen as the problem. However, in this community, the main concern was not the risk that wildfire poses to homes, but rather the gradual encroachment of piñon and juniper trees that are crowding out grasslands and reducing productivity. Here the community recognizes that inaction is the problem, and fire is seen a solution and a necessary tool to protect the land. From my perspective, fire adapted communities is about being proactive by making investments and accepting short-term risks to improve long-term health and safety, rather than being risk adverse in the present, and virtually guaranteeing reduced productivity and or increased wildfire hazard in the future.
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