Aerial view of the Aztec Springs, New Mexico, pile burning project. Photo Credit: Porfirio Chavarria

Topic: Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire Watershed protection / management Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Reducing Wildfire Risk in Santa Fe Through Collaborative Burning: The Aztec Springs Pile Burning Project

Author: Matt Piccarello

Fire and forest managers, regardless of jurisdiction, organization or location, have a shared responsibility to implement safe and successful prescribed burns. With this in mind, the City of Santa Fe, The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Stewards Guild worked together to burn 180 slash piles in the Aztec Springs drainage. Gaining public support and awareness for prescribed burning was a high priority for the burn management team, right along with firefighter safety and reducing the wildfire risk to the adjacent communities.

Public comments and pre-burn meetings revealed that nearby communities were primarily concerned with smoke. An 844-acre prescribed fire implemented by the USDA Forest Service this past September adjacent to the Aztec Springs pile burn project resulted in a fair amount of smoke settling in the city. After that, many residents expressed their concern and disapproval with city and federal officials. While concerns about the smoke impacts are justified, living in a fire-adapted landscape – as we do in Santa Fe – requires some amount of tolerance to smoke in the air during wildfire and prescribed fire seasons. The difference is that with a prescribed fire, managers have greater control over fire behavior and smoke. As a result, the duration and intensity of smoke impacts can be greatly reduced.

Implementing a prescribed fire in an urban and municipal context is a delicate balancing act that includes managing limited financial and human resources, achieving ecological objectives, staying within pre-determined weather parameters, and complying with air quality regulations. The burn management team, led by Jeremy Bailey of The Nature Conservancy and Greg Gallegos (burn boss trainee) from the City of Santa Fe Fire Department, worked together to accomplish multiple project objectives. Jeremy and Greg focused on quality over quantity, and took a deliberate approach to limit smoke impacts. Rather than spending the entire three-hour burn window conducting ignitions, firefighters worked in teams to light 20 piles each and then consolidated remaining fuel for greater consumption.

In order to limit smoldering during the night, which would potentially send smoke into town or nearby communities, firefighters ended the day by dragging large, partially burned material from the piles into deep snow to extinguish them. With the hazardous fuels consumed, objectives for reducing wildfire hazard risk had been accomplished. It can be easy to think in absolutes when managing fire–100 percent out, or 100 percent consumption. However, disturbance events like wildfire rarely result in absolute outcomes. A low-intensity wildfire, characteristic for the ponderosa pine forest type, would likely result in some dead standing or downed trees. Leaving charred material outside of the piles mimics the natural fire regime, helps contribute to improved soil health, and stores carbon that would have otherwise been lost to flames.

Firefighters also took precautions to avoid potential impacts to small mammals that may have nested in the piles. Rather than igniting a pile with a ring of fire at its base, firefighters deposited a small amount of fuel on a single side to allow any animals to escape. This method was proven effective as, after igniting one side of a pile, Jeremy Bailey witnessed a rabbit exit from the opposite side.

There is still much more work to be done to reduce the risk of a severe wildfire in the high-priority areas that surround Santa Fe. Only 10 percent of the pile burning was completed. However, the strategic and deliberate approach being used by the Fire Department and their partners has already reduced wildfire risk and engendered goodwill and trust with the surrounding communities that will support future prescribed burning. The pace and scale of burning in Aztec Springs may increase as conditions allow, but not at the expense of public support. In the meantime, the Fire Department will continue to work with local partners and adjacent landowners like the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, to chip away at the deficit in treated acres. Experience gleaned from the Aztec Springs burn will help inform not only future burns on municipal lands, but in other communities throughout the West that are working to reduce the risk facing wildland-urban interface communities.

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on the Forest Stewardship Guild’s website.