Fire in our Southwestern forests
Regeneration. Our Southwestern forests are abundantly alive and innately know how to heal and to come back after natural impacts such as fire. A healthy forest is constantly undergoing a myriad of natural processes and transformations. Although fire, especially high-intensity fire, looks like destruction, it supports the life and biodiversity of the forest. Our magnificent aspen stands are the result of high-intensity fire.
On Sept. 23, Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist and national director of the Sierra Club, gave an excellent talk about fire in our Southwestern forests at Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse. He spoke about and showed photos of the regeneration in some high-intensity burn areas of the Las Conchas Fire.
Contrary to how the after-effects of the Las Conchas Fire have often been characterized — as a largely sterilized and barren landscape — even the high-intensity burn areas are now teeming with regrowth of all the types of vegetation that previously existed in those areas. First the Gambel oak, locust and aspen started coming in along with grasses and wildflowers, then conifers have followed. Rebirth of a forest. It’s a long process, but someday it will again be what most of us consider a beautiful and healthy forest, and one that’s more adapted to our warming and dryer climate.
Hanson explained that high-intensity fire is natural to ponderosa pine forests historically, even if low- and moderate-intensity fire was much more predominant. Many species of wildlife such as woodpeckers depend on high-intensity burn areas to survive, and the post-fire conditions that support woodpeckers also support numerous cycles of forest life.
Why is this important? The U.S. Forest Service believes that decades of fire suppression and restraint from logging have altered forest ecology and have increased high-intensity fires to unnatural levels, and the way to return the forest to a healthy condition and keep us safe from fire is to do intensive tree thinning, followed by prescribed burns.
The Forest Service is proposing to cut and burn much of a large area of our local Santa Fe National Forest it calls the fireshed. When young trees and the forest undergrowth return, they’re burned off again. All this causes much more ecological damage to the forest than natural fires, including erosion, soil compaction, insect and disease outbreaks, and damage and disruption to wildlife habitat. Removing such large numbers of trees adversely impacts the forest’s ability to store carbon — and carbon sequestration supports life, including ours.
According to Hanson, the probability that a fire will encounter a thinning treatment during its effectiveness period is very low, so in the cost-benefit analysis, forest thinning treatments away from homes are generally not justifiable. And weather is a more important factor in fire severity than fuels.
In the majority of cases, we can protect our homes with appropriate fire-proofing measures — metal roofs, rain gutter guards, cleanup and removal of flammable materials, and judicious thinning within 100 feet of homes. Humans already have caused too much damage to the forest. The forest can heal itself, in time, and knows how much better than we do.
Support life and protect our cherished Southwestern forests. Tell your elected representatives to urge the Forest Service to complete an environmental impact statement for the entire fireshed tree cutting and prescribed burn program.
Please watch Hanson’s informative presentation, posted at santafeforestcoalition.org.
Sarah Hyden lives by the Santa Fe National Forest and does what she can to protect the forest.