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Wildland Fire Science at Northern New Mexico College
Lisa Mednick Powell
On June 26, 2011, lunchtime patrons at Española’s La Cocina emerged from the restaurant to see a thin plume of smoke rising from the Jemez Mountains into the afternoon sky. Less than 24 hours later, the ragged plume had become a raging wildfire covering 43,000 acres of northern New Mexico. It would continue spreading untilAug. 2, when it was finally contained; by then the Las Conchas Fire had gained the distinction of being the largest wildfire in NM history at 156,000 acres.
Some wildfires begin with a spark from lightning or from a careless smoker’s smoldering match. The Las Conchas Fire started when a falling aspen tree that had been cooked to tinder by the high desert heat struck a power line. The spring winds, normally fierce enough, were stronger than usual and lasted into early summer, fanning the sparks into a blaze that helped the fire progress at a record pace.
Less than one year later, the Las Conchas fire was outpaced by the lightning-ignited Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, which consumed over 200,000 acres. This fire in the Gila Wilderness spread quickly across steep and jagged terrain, where firefighters cannot go. Dr. James Biggs, director of both Environmental Sciences and the Wildland Fire Science Program at Northern New Mexico College explained, “You cannot put personnel directly in front of the fire because it may be too risky. Therefore, you may need to build a fireline many miles out ahead of the fire and burn the fuel, essentially starving the fire.”
Regional fire history is an important component of Wildland Fire Science, so it is worth looking at a brief chronology of fires in northern NM. The perception of what constitutes a large fire has shifted in comparison to what a large fire looked like in the relatively recent past.
In June of 1977, the La Mesa fire burned 18,000 acres. This was followed by a lull in fire activity. The next 15 or so years constituted a “wet period,” during which, according to Dr. Biggs, “things started heating up, growing fast and thick—which resulted in a fuel buildup.”
By the time the Dome Fire occurred in 1996, burning 19,000 acres, the environment had begun to dry up. This dry period continued through 1998, when the Oso Complex Fire burned just under 6,000 acres, until 2000 when the region suffered the Cerro Grande Fire. The Cerro Grande Fire was, at the time, the most destructive and costly fire in the United States, and further damage occurred due to subsequent flooding in the region.
Located on two campuses, one in Española and one 28 miles away in El Rito, where the Wildland Fire Science classes take place, Northern New Mexico College is an ideal location for the study of this topic. The Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountains frame the lush El Rito Valley, and the campus is located within Kit Carson National Forest. This program has seen a dramatic increase in enrollment in the past year, perhaps due to the increased frequency of large wildland fires.
In addition to fire history, the coursework includes the study of the ecological role of fire, which can include clearing out accumulated fuels, such as underbrush, dried leaves and grasses, replenishing nutrients in the soil and controlling both disease and insect populations. It is important to note that fire plays a natural and positive role in wildland ecology and forest restoration. Under the right conditions, fire is of benefit to the environment and should be allowed to burn.
“To restore forests we need to restore fire and other natural disturbances,” says Dr. Biggs. He adds, however, that any human-caused fires should be immediately extinguished; conditions today are less than ideal due to climate change and other factors affecting fire regimes.
Thanks to a grant recently awarded to Dr. Biggs by the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), NNMC’s El Rito campus will soon house a Fire Ecology and Simulation Laboratory. The new lab will be part of Northern’s Agroecology and Biological Research Station, which will include a soil laboratory. There, according to Biggs, “students will research the hydrologic characteristics and carbon dioxide emissions of burned versus unburned areas. They will also study simulated fire predictive models in the Carson National Forest.”
Dr. Biggs has identified a need to educate people about the relationship between fires and other biological components of ecosystems, such as soil and water. In that regard, the new lab will also include research opportunities for undergraduate students and the general public, and will feature outreach to K-12 students and teachers. The lab will also host informative workshops for the public, policy-makers, the media, and of course students—so that all may become better informed about fire’s relationship to the environment.
Lisa Mednick Powell is a staff writer at Northern New Mexico College.
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