Photo Credit: Landowners igniting the first pile of the day in 8 degree temperatures. Photo by Forest Guild
I am excited to report that two weeks ago the Forest Guild completed its first pile burn on private land in Santa Fe County. While we’ve convened two training exchanges on state trust lands, burning on private land with the homeowners participating is an entirely new experience.
We burned fuels on 6.5 acres that had been thinned in the spring of 2014. Both the thinning and the burning were partially funded through The Nature Conservancy’s 2013 Scaling up to Promote Ecosystem Restoration Initiative. Landowners also contributed to the cost of thinning. Across the community, over 50 acres have been treated.
The project objectives were to reduce wildfire risk, move the stands into a less dense condition that approximates pre-suppression densities, and improve forest
health. In addition, slash and stems were used to reduce erosion and enhance the understory. Remaining slash was piled. Along dirt roads slash was chipped within 30 feet of the roads.
The community of La Cueva was selected due to its high risk rating in the Santa Fe County Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which was based on field data from property assessments, and due to its proximity to densely forested national forest land.
In New Mexico, counties manage open burning on private land. Due to this, standards and practices for prescribed fire on private land vary from county to co
unty. In Santa Fe County, there was no precedent for pile burning. Ordinarily, landowners are only allowed to burn one pile at a time. This would not be feasible across 6.5 acres of piles, so the Guild and our partner Fire Service Support wrote a burn plan and worked with the County Fire Marshall to obtain a permit.
Neither the Santa Fe County Fire Department’s Wildland Division, nor New Mexico State Forestry could assist with the burning due to their interpretation of the anti-donation clause in the state constitution. This effectively limits private land burning in New Mexico and ties the hands of local wildland resources from assisting.
The Guild utilized lessons learned from our broadcast burning experience in 2013 and 2014 in Black Lake, New Mexico to call on volunteers, and partners, including the City of Santa Fe Wildland Division to assist us. The City of Santa Fe engaged even though it was outside of their jurisdiction because they recognized that this community posed a risk to the City’s municipal drinking watershed. They also knew that this would be a valuable training opportunity for firefighters. The City of Santa Fe interprets the anti-donation clause differently, and has deemed fuels reduction, even on private land, to have p
ublic safety benefits.
The City firefighters brought a type 6 wildland engine on both burn days, which was a major asset. The New Mexico State Land Office loaned firefighting gear (Nomex® clothing, tools, drip torches, etc.), and the Pecos Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest loaned the effort a fire effects weather kit. The Forest Guild hired a burn boss, provided coordination (air quality and burn permits, resources), established permission and liability documents with the landowners, and served as public information officers for the burn via trap-lining and daily updates on a webpage, and assisted with community notifications. As a result of all this effort, we only received one smoke call and successfully completed the burn objectives.
The stage is now set to complete the remaining piles in La Cueva next season. While there is more work needed in this community, there are other high-risk communities that ring the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern Santa Fe County in need of management attention. We will leverage the lessons learned from this project as we continue to work with the County on our wildland fire challenges.
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