Closing the gate after the horse got out of the corral…

It was amusing to read last week that the U.S. Forest Service had implemented a 90-day pause on any controlled burn operations in forests the agency manages in the United States. It was also incredibly sad what had prompted that decision.

“Wildfires are increasingly extreme because of climate change, drought and dry fuels across many parts of the country,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore when announcing the pause after New Mexico officials pushed for its implementation.

Well, duh.

Moore’s decision comes after a controlled burn by the USFS in the Santa Fe National Forest got out of control and has ravaged more than 300,000 acres of pristine forest on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo range. And it’s still burning.

Damage from Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire

It breaks my heart to see the areas of burned trees that once were lush ponderosa, spruce, fir and aspen forests. I will be long gone before any of these areas recover completely.

The Forest Service has clammed up about how the fire got out of control, using the usual “cause is under investigation” blanket to cover the agency’s butt.

Well, here’s why it got out of control. A foolish decision was made to start a controlled burn in the always dry, always windy spring in New Mexico. And it was already an exceptionally dry and exceptionally windy spring. Yet the fire was started instead of waiting for a less windy time of year and a time of year when humidity and moisture content in the forest would have been higher. And to make things worse, the Forest Service apparently didn’t have a decent emergency plan with air tankers and other fire suppressing equipment ready to dispatch at a moment’s notice in case things went bad.

Area of Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire as of May 21, 2022

But no, this wasn’t the first time the U.S. Forest Service did such a foolish thing. The giant Cerro Grande fire in the Jemez Mountains was ignited by a controlled burn in the year 2000.

I understand that controlled burns are an effective tool for keeping naturally started forest fires from spreading. But for Pete’s sake, can’t anyone at the Forest Service come up with a better time of year to do these things?

Seeing New Mexico’s forests burn up has been very painful for me. My favorite place on the planet for fly fishing, Whitewater Creek on the west side of the Gila Wilderness, went up in flames 10 years ago. A stream once teaming with tiny feisty trout was choked to death when ash from the fire swept down the narrow canyon a few days after the fire had been extinguished. All but a few fish survived. The one good thing is that the temporary destruction of the watershed has resulted in a plan to re-stock the stream with native Gila trout. Unfortunately, with the grindingly slow governmental process to restock the stream, I probably won’t be in good enough physical shape to fish the upper reaches of Whitewater Creek when it is finally opened up.

That fire was started by lightning strike during a dry thunderstorm. It consumed just shy of 300,000 acres of forested land.

Forest fires will happen from natural causes. That’s a given. But do we have to keep starting ones ourselves that do just as much or more damage because of incredibly bad planning?

At the rate we’re going, there may not be many forests left in New Mexico in the not-to-distant future. I hope I’m wrong.

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