Third time’s the charm. Burning at Cottonwood Gulch

Written by Carlos Saiz and Sam Berry 

When I (Carlos) first arrived at the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions Basecamp, I was a rookie firefighter showing up to prescribed burn in 2015, excited to start my career, and looking to get fire experience at every opportunity. The Basecamp is located at the foothills of the Zuni Mountains and has ponderosa pine mixed with pinyon juniper forests with a few cottonwoods along a stream as the name would suggest. It is also the heart of a large expedition-based youth education program, with hundreds of youths coming and going throughout the year to learn about nature and the outdoors. The Gulch’s staff have engaged in actively restoring their lands to protect themselves from fire but more importantly as part of their mission to demonstrate to their campers and neighbors what responsible forest management means, and that includes returning fire to the landscape.

Trucks and people line up at the start of the Rx burn day.

Arriving at the Gulch, rain creates a wet ground and concerns about the burn. Hope shines bright at the end of the rainbow.

Returning with a collaborative team that had successfully burned at the camp twice before in the 2010s, preparations began in 2021 with the Guild, the Ember Alliance, the local volunteer fire department, The Nature Conservancy, and Cottonwood Gulch to implement another burn. That fall was too wet to complete the burn though and, in the spring of 2022, we made another attempt. We were nearly hitting call on our phones to mobilize resources to the site, when the forecast changed, and we had to call off the burn due to dry and windy conditions outside of our prescription. During that same day, 150 miles northeast of the unit, the Las Dispensas prescribed fire was ignited, turning into New Mexico’s largest wildfire, the Hermits Peak fire. This tragedy was then compounded when a nearby winter pile burn flared up in the spring and turned into the Calf Canyon wildfire. During an unprecedented wind event, these two escaped prescribed burns combined into one fire. Like after the Cerro Grande Fire from 2000, another escaped prescribed fire tragedy in New Mexico, the atmosphere around prescribed burning immediately darkened, bringing new challenges and adversities for years to come. The Guild and the Gulch postponed the burn to weather that storm and wait for better weather.

When I returned to the area in 2023, I had plenty of fire experience and had just started a new job at the Guild as the Fire and Fuels Coordinator. I was ready to train new firefighters at the start of their career and to help implement a prescribed burn 2 years in the making. In a combination effort to prepare for the burn and to get folks ready for the season, Cottonwood Gulch was host to the S-130/190 and the S-212 fire classes. The students were part of our Forest Stewards Youth Corps that gives entry level experience to folks that are new to forestry. While completing their training these individuals also worked on digging handlines and preparing the burn area. These students would also play a major part in burning the Gulch as well.

Smoke rises into the air from a prescribed burn

The rising smoke from the Cottonwood Gulch Prescribed Burn, proving land management by fire can be done safely.

Along with prepping the burn area came prepping the communities around the Gulch for the burn. In 2019 there was another escaped prescribed fire that was visible from the town of Bluewater Acres where the camp was located so folks were already on edge even before the escapes at Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon in 2022. A public outreach effort to better communicate the need and role of fire in the landscape was developed throughout Thoreau and Bluewater Acres. We managed to get municipal fire personnel, community members, and Cottonwood Gulch staff in a meeting together with the Guild to talk about what was going to happen during the coming autumn. The first meeting went well, and some trust was built, but afterwards more community members heard about the meeting too late to attend. A second meeting was called to provide a chance to meet with these folks too. Some distrust remained with a few folks, but more were ok with or supportive of our plan.  

Concurrently with this process another necessary step was to obtain a permit from the county fire department. In 2023 New Mexico had no centralized prescribed fire permit process so counties used their own patchwork of processes, and few were addressing burns of this complexity or size, as they mostly focused on back yard debris burning or agricultural burning. Cottonwood Gulch is in McKinley County, where they had just received a new fire Chief since our last permit was issued prior to the escaped burns of 2022. Well versed in “structural” fire suppression, the new chief had his own concerns that needed to be addressed. After the public outreach efforts and attending the operational meetings, and with the support of the VFD chief of the district where the burn was located that had participated in previous burns, the new chief was willing to sign the permit. With the support of his wildland coordinator, he also committed personnel and equipment to assist.  

After years of planning, countless coordination calls, and prepping the unit 3 times, resources arrived at the site on October 2nd, 2023. Engines and crews from Forest Stewards Guild, Forest Stewards Youth Corps, Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, The Nature Conservancy, The Ember Alliance, Santa Clara Pueblo, the US Forest Service, and McKinley County FD, were eager to get the work done. Previous rainstorms had moistened fuels slightly, but it had dried enough to make the unit good enough to burn. The problem was that another storm holding hail had stopped right over the unit that afternoon, casting an ominous gray in the sky and in our hearts, and made everyone question whether we had too much precipitation or not. Luckly, the gray sky didn’t last long.  

Once the sky cleared and the hail melted off, the next few days went just as planned. Firing and holding teams were put together prioritizing training opportunities, including engine boss, firing boss, squad boss, and fire effects monitors. We were able to safely burn 110 acres over two days, and nearly all the youth corps members got a memorable first burn as they were able to see their hard prep work come into play as they dragged a torch or held a tool on the line. We then turned to intensive mop-up to cool the perimeter followed by weeks of patrolling.  

Photo of low flames across a prescribed burn

Good fire has good effects. Promoting growth and wildlife.

An unanticipated consequence of burning through the mix of pinyon juniper and ponderosa forest types, is that the ponderosa burned nice and clean as it’s adapted to do, but the deep dense layers of duff under the pinon trees that had been building up for 100s of years smoldered for weeks, with little “duffers” going underground and popping back up. It was a reminder that just because it’s convenient to draw a box based on property boundaries and ideal holding features around them and burn everything inside, there can be unexpected consequences of trying to force fire into systems that aren’t as well adapted for it. In the future, burning at the Cottonwood Gulch should probably be primarily in the ponderosa areas, and avoiding the differently fire adapted pinyon areas, that when burned through held lingering smoldering messes that could have caused control problems.  

In the end our team was able to pull together all the threads of navigating tricky weather, community outreach, working through permitting hurdles, bringing together a diverse collaborative team, and training the next generation of forest stewards together to pull off a successful burn. On top of building some trust around the practice of prescribed burning, this success brought well needed fire and rejuvenated the landscape, partnerships, and community. In addition, we anticipate that this burn improved the landscape’s health and will allow more grasses and forbs to reach up through the forest floor that was previously slash and a carpet of pine needles, but we have a field visit scheduled for the spring to determine what the impacts are. We are certain that the burn was successful in removing fuels directly adjacent to Gulch’s infrastructure, so the threat of wildfire is reduced during the summer when there are sometimes hundreds of students on site. Although the 110 acres are relatively small in the large landscapes of New Mexico, the burn had outsized impacts by demonstrating that prescribed broadcast burns on private property after the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon disasters could be achieved safely and successfully.