The Glorieta Pile Burn in the Landscape of the Hermits Peak escaped prescribed burn
Written by Carlos Saiz and Sam Berry
The 2022 fire season was one for the history books in
New Mexico. I started with the Forest Stewards Guild as the Fire and Fuels Coordinator just after the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon (HP/CC) Fire was ending. As this was the largest fire in the state’s history caused by 2 prescribed fires, New Mexicans were left extremely nervous when it comes to smoke in the forests, making my new responsibilities in prescribed fire a bit more challenging.
Glorieta Adventure Camps (the Camps) is located on over 2000 acres of forested land that has thousands of visitors each summer and is home to 100 full-time residents. It is located just to the southwest of the HP/CC fire. When thousands of people in northern New Mexico were pushed out of their homes because of the wildfire, the Camps took in many of the evacuees. Much like their surrounding neighbors, the Camps have been anxious about wildfires, and with so much at stake, they chose a proactive approach to wildfire resilience, including treatments such as thinning, masticating, and creating burn piles.
Starting in 2020 we combined efforts to begin pile burns. This is an effective way to reduce fuel loads in forests at risk for wildfires, lowering the severity of future wildfires and improving forest resilience. Led by our burn boss, Sam Berry, we have safely and successfully burned many acres of slash piles each year with our firefighters, partners, and Camp’s staff. Because the Camp is mostly south facing, snow comes and goes quickly, and our crews have had to go the extra mile to patrol and mop up pile burns in the days after each burn.
After the devastating fire year in New Mexico, burning that had become routine faced new obstacles, such as public distrust of prescribed fire and anxiety from permitting agencies to allow burns. After securing the support of the district’s County Commissioner, we applied for a burn permit from the Santa Fe County Fire Department. They required us to revise our burn plan to meet the new US Forest Service requirements, which typically don’t apply to NGOs. Once these changes were complete and they had inspected the unit, they finally felt comfortable enough to issue us their blessing through a permit to proceed with the burn.
To be transparent and to settle any concerns from locals, we doubled our communications efforts from previous seasons. We hosted a field tour to show our pile burn process at the camps. Despite numerous attempts to reach residents through local flyers and email blasts, this tour had few attendees. This left us wondering if the local community was unconcerned with the burn or if we hadn’t reached people.
We also issued a press release that gathered attention following the catastrophe of the HP/CC wildfire. Newspaper articles and T.V. broadcast interviews helped spread the word that although we felt deeply for the victims of the fire, we believe the work of reintroducing fire is important enough to continue.
One community leader that heard of the burn through a news story asked us, “Why?” Worry dominated our conversation and “Salt in the wound” was his initial reaction, but after a phone conversation and a field visit to discuss how and what we have accomplished at the Camps, worries were eased, and some trust was established.
After the New Year, the storm we needed was in the forecast. It was our time to burn. The plan was to start with a small burn area to show that pile burning can still be done safely in the same area of the HP/CC fire. On January 19, 2023, “Prescribed Burn Ahead” signs appeared near the Camps and flyers were posted all around the community. On that snowy morning, our veteran firefighters led several burners with a mix of experience and affiliations, including some first-time burners. Reporters from the Albuquerque Journal also came to this first prescribed burn operation since spring 2022. With smoke in the air for the first time since the wildfires from escaped prescribed burns in the summer, our collaboration braced for comments from the community, but none appeared. A few days later the article appeared on the front page, announcing that we were leading the way with reintroducing prescribed fire.
However, the actual work was not complete. The storm that allowed the first 8 acres of successful burning was followed by more with plenty of snow. 42 acres were left, and everything was lined up. On January 24th, as new and familiar faces gathered and geared-up, a phone call would change the pace for us.
With light winds and snow on the ground, we called Santa Fe County Dispatch to get final permission to burn, and to notify them in case of smoke reports from the community. We were surprised to get a “no-go” message from the SFCFD battalion chief because of windy conditions in most of the county. Since we knew that our winds on the other side of the ridge were safe, a friendly partnership with SFCFD Wildland Division was called upon. “I will talk with the battalion chief and will get back to you,” was the message. The chief trusted us and our operations enough to explain the situation to his chief and to get an exemption for our burn. The green light was given.
After the long hike up, and some training of many first-time burners, I lined out 16 burners on my first burn boss trainee assignment and we headed down the hill with lit drip torches and glowing smiles. 40 acres of piles were burned that first day, and the final 2 acres were burned the following day with some new snow on the unit. After more mop up and continued patrols the burn was called “out” February 6th, 2023.
In the shadow of the devastating HP/CC fire, the Glorieta Camps Pile Rx faced major obstacles along the way. Between bureaucratic revisions, misunderstandings from community members, and a looming “shut down,” we overcame those adversities with the help of our partners, building on and creating long lasting partnerships, and trust within the community. With the help of Glorieta Adventure Camps we proved that prescribed fire can be done, together, and hopefully helped set the stage for the return of more prescribed fire in the mountains of New Mexico.