It has become common knowledge that the decades-long practice of suppressing natural fires has made forests too dense and more prone to large, destructive fires.
Now, a southwestern author with a longtime affinity for the Pecos River region points to part of his 2016 book detailing how the trees in this region have grown thicker and bigger, making the forest landscape more flammable, especially with the climate becoming hotter and drier.
The wooded area that Patrick Dearen describes in his book Bitter Waters: The Pecos River Struggle is a microcosm of the West, where federal wildfire suppression policy that has naturally thinned forests has led to an overgrowth blamed for feeding increasingly common wild infernos.
Dearen said the book was directly related to the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire – the largest fire in New Mexico history – as part of the fire raged through the dense forest near the course. Upper Pecos River.
The two-month fire burned nearly 342,000 acres and destroyed at least 300 homes.
“It was inevitable,” Dearen said in a phone interview. “Sooner or later it was going to happen because the stage was set in the 1890s.”
Dearen, 72, who lives in Midland, Texas, is the author of more than two dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction, most with a Western theme.
He said he has done extensive research over the years on the history and ecology of the Pecos River, which stretches 926 miles through New Mexico and Texas.
The federal government established the Pecos River Forest Preserve in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1892, and within six years it grew to 431,000 acres. The preserve would become a national forest in 1907, then become part of the Santa Fe National Forest in 1915.
In 1898, John D. Benedict, the Superintendent of Forestry, said a key mission was to protect timber from destructive wildfires, Dearen said.
Benoît was among the forestry officials who promoted a no-fire policy that would later be adopted more widely.
The U.S. Forest Service viewed wildfire suppression as its primary mission after the agency was established in 1905. The agency began to pursue this goal more zealously in the early 1930s, with a policy of new fires extinguished by 10 a.m. after ignition. This policy will continue until the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the timber on Pecos land became much denser during the 20th century as crews rushed over any new fires, Dearen said, noting that foresters count the overgrowth trees over the years.
In a 1911 survey, they counted 50 to 60 ponderosa pines per acre, Dearen said. By the end of the 20th century, the number had risen to 1,089 per acre, a 20-fold increase, he said.
At the same time, they found 1,348 Douglas firs per acre in the late 1990s, Dearen said. There is no record of the number of these fir trees that populated the land at the turn of the century, but it is a high density nonetheless, he said.
When the area first became a reserve, one-third of it was old wildfire burns and one-third was open space, he said, so its natural state was vast meadows interspersed with thickets.
This topography made it much less prone to mammoth fires, Dearen added.
Officials estimated that fuel loads rose from five tons per acre in the early 1900s to 60 tons in the late 1990s, Dearen said.
Along with more crowded forests, hyper-vigilant fire protection has led to tall trees towering over shorter trees, he said. This can create “fuel ladders” that allow a ground fire to climb the shortest trees and then the tallest, all the while intensifying as the flames ignite their canopies into spreading crown fires fast.
Crown fires were a common challenge in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which was brought on by high winds and low humidity against a backdrop of drought.
In the 19th century, the common opinion was that wood should be protected from natural threats like fire to ensure maximum yields when harvested.
Dearen said that with the Pecos reservation, the motives went beyond commercial extraction. Foresters thought the increased tree cover would benefit the Pecos River, he said.
In 1890, L. Bradford Prince, governor of the New Mexico Territory, called for the upper reaches of the Pecos River to be set aside as a park – saying the preservation of timber there was vital to irrigating the valley. for farmers, Dearen said.
“They had all sorts of reasons why they thought the bigger the wood, the greater the water flow would be,” he said. “It seemed to be well-intentioned but not quite accurate.”
A 1902 manual on the forest reserve reflects their views, Dearen said. They thought the denser wood would create more shade, prolonging snowmelt, while protecting the snow from the wind, which causes it to dry out and evaporate, he said.
The trees would also prevent the soil from being washed away by heavy rains, Dearen said, citing the manual. This larger layer of soil could then absorb and store rain during drier periods, he said.
“But by preserving the wood, it denied nature its natural cleansing,” Dearen said.
Before people got involved, low-intensity wildfires burned these forests, which were only moderately dense, every five to 25 years, consuming weeds and debris, he said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, forestry officials resisted prescribed burns and let natural fires take their course, but began to embrace this type of fire management in the 1990s, said Tom Ribe, public lands advocate and author of a book that takes a critical look at the Cerro Grande fire in 2000.
The Cerro Grande and Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fires are the result of prescribed burns gone bad.
Like other prescribed burns, the intent was to consume fuels accumulated over decades of agencies not allowing natural fires to clear them.
The Hermits Peak Fire formed when afternoon gusts spiraled out of control in early April. It then merged with the Calf Canyon Fire, which ignited from a stack burn in January that smoldered for months.
Similar missteps were made with the Cerro Grande and Hermits Peak fires, Ribe said. Crews felt pressured to complete the burns despite dry conditions and the risk of erratic spring winds, especially on sloping terrain, he said.
Ribe said he could understand why the agencies wanted to do as many controlled burns as possible, given the amount of fuel accumulated.
Although agencies have stepped up prescribed burns over the past two decades, they have barely damaged the vast overgrown forests, he said.
“The budgets they have and the staff they have, there’s no way they can ever catch up,” Ribe said. “They should have started on that in the 1960s.”
Meanwhile, prolonged drought and climate change are compounding the problem, making parched fuels more flammable and causing hotter, drier weather that’s often not conducive to much-needed burns, Ribe said.
A recent study published in the journal Natural climate change says the West is experiencing the driest 22-year period since 800 AD, plunging the region into a mega-drought.
Human-caused climate change is worsening the severity of the drought and extending its duration, researchers say, estimating it could drag on to the 30-year mark before finally passing.
Federal agencies may have to make the difficult decision not to do spring prescribed burns unless there has been an above-average wet winter, Ribe said.
“They have a smaller and smaller window to do the prescribed burns,” he said.
Dearen said climate change combined with overgrown forests is a recipe for a catastrophic fire like Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon – an unintended consequence of all fires being extinguished for the better part of a century.
“You take the fact that it’s drier and hotter and the density of the forest and the fuel loads, and that was waiting to happen,” Dearen said.