SF forest thinning policy needs clarification
Forest Supervisor James Melonas’s recent op-ed, “Lessons from a fire you likely don’t know about,” claims that a nearby forest thinning treatment caused the Venado Fire to drop down from a high intensity fire to a manageable fire, and that this indicates that forest fuel treatments are a real positive for the Santa Fe National Forest.
One should look at the complexity of all the various factors, including the weather.
According to nmfireinfo, there were slash piles in the thinned San Joaquin unit, which likely would have made the fire much worse, but it rained on July 26 and slowed down the fire enough so that crews were able to go out and burn the slash piles before the fire hit the area. Also, when the fire did encounter the thinned area, presumably the trees and ground were wet, which would naturally assist in decreasing fire intensity.
“On the northern boundary, the Venado Fire reached the San Joaquin unit, a previously thinned area of about 1,500 acres where fuels are piled as part of a forest restoration project. Yesterday’s rain gave firefighters the opportunity to reduce fuels on the ground by proactively lighting piles in the Joaquin unit in an effort to contain fire spread to the north.”
Research indicates that there is a window of time where a fuel treatment can in some cases help mitigate fire if the slash has been properly dealt with, but it doesn’t last long, generally only several years, since it usually takes at least a few years or so to deal with the slash. In the case of the Venado Fire, without the fortuitous coincidence of the rain on July 26, which wetted the forest down and allowed the firefighters to burn the slash piles, the San Joaquin fuel treatment may have made the fire worse because slash piles are highly flammable.
The bigger picture should be taken into account, instead of arriving at the simple conclusion that the nearby thinning treatment substantially altered behavior of the Venado Fire and that fuel treatments are generally a positive for Southwestern forests in the cost/benefit analysis.
SARAH HYDEN SANTA FE