The Fire You Never Heard Of … Here’s Why

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SANTA FE, NM – July 29, 2020 – On June 21, 2020, peak fire season on the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF), firefighters were dispatched to a human-caused fire on the Jemez Ranger District. Named the Fuel Fire because of a sign posted on the two-track road that led to the fire, it had the potential to become a real problem.

Temperatures were in the 90s with relative humidity at 9%. Fuel moisture levels were in single digits, and the energy release component (ERC), a technical calculation that gives fire managers a seven-day look at potential fire intensity, was in the 90th percentile. On top of that, prevailing winds in the drainage where the fire started increased its potential to spread.

If the Fuel Fire had taken off, the values at risk were significant, including Pueblo of Jemez tribal lands, the Rancho del Chaparral Girl Scout Camp, the Las Vacas and Guadalupe Watersheds, and a powerline that runs to the camp and other private properties.

The reason firefighters were able to contain the Fuel Fire at less than 1.5 acres? Luckily, the accidental fire happened to start within the 852-acre footprint of a 2016 fuels treatment area that was first thinned and then burned to reduce the unnaturally high build-up of fuels.

The Fuel Fire was adjacent to a larger area where fuels reduction projects have treated more than 2,400 acres to restore forest and watershed health and make this part of the SFNF more resilient to wildfire and other ecological disturbances.

“The Fuel Fire is not an isolated incident,” Fuels Program Manager Dennis Carril said. “Over the last few years, as we implement more forest restoration projects, we are seeing more and more wildfires that interact with these projects and significantly modify their behavior, with very clear reductions in fire severity and intensity. The outcome is a healthier forest and safer communities.”

Forest restoration tools like thinning and prescribed fire help land managers moderate the risk of future high-intensity fire by reducing the density of overcrowded forests and returning low-severity fire to the landscape as a keystone ecological process. Fuels treatments, like the work that helped firefighters suppress the Fuel Fire, benefit fire-adapted ecosystems by:

  • improving forest health and resilience to major disturbances, including climate change, drought, insects and disease, and invasive species,
  • improving watersheds and safeguarding the water supply that originates on forest land,
  • reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire and its aftermath, including flooding and debris flow,
  • enhancing wildlife habitat connectivity and conserving critical habitat for threatened and endangered species.