October 2, 2008

Our View the Smoke Clears on a Successful Burn

It's been a good burn: Three years after the more dangerous parts of the Santa Fe Watershed underwent a thinning of the masses of small trees clumped together like so much tinder, the Forest Service recently got the go-ahead from state and federal officialdom for a controlled burn in the canyon.

Carefully planned, it began with fires hand-set by drip torches around the perimeter of the main target. That created a charred buffer between the slash to be burned and the surrounding forest.

This was steep terrain -- and further fires posed high risk to the lives of the forest rangers involved in the project. So in came a helicopter, from which mixed-chemical containers the size of ping- pong balls were dropped. Their timed ignition set the target ablaze.

For nearly two weeks, it's been burning itself out -- with little damage to root systems of shrubs, grass and other soil binders needed to keep the hillsides from eroding away in rains and snow.

That's thanks to the wettest summer in a long time, and on that count, the bureaucratic delays of the burn were worthwhile: When 40 percent of Santa Fe's water supply is dependent on snowpack and a certain amount of rain flowing into a pair of uphill reservoirs, our community couldn't afford having that part of it silted in any worse than it already is.

Oh, but the smoke! Complaints poured in to Forest Service headquarters down on Rodeo Road from folks unhappy about the unsightliness and the breathing difficulties, real and imagined.

To which the florestas might have responded: If you think that was bad, guess what it would've been like if the watershed had been hit by wildfire -- which the thinning project was trying to prevent.

Just as natural disasters threaten many parts of the country -- floods in the Midwest, hurricanes on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and earthquakes in California -- fire is a constant threat out West. The more hillside suburbs crowd the forests, the greater the risk, as San Diego County and other areas have discovered to many residents' sorrow.

What's been taking place during much of the decade in the canyons above Santa Fe is a well-considered, excellently executed effort to mitigate what could have been a catastrophe.

That didn't keep a certain number of NIMBYs from objecting to some aspects of the project, from firewood gleaning by the great unwashed, to increased traffic up Canyon Road, to -- kaff, kaff -- smoke.

But as a couple of our readers have noted in letters to the editor, if that's the worst they were to suffer, then they'd take a whiff or two of carbon now, rather than lungfuls later. And the worst was over in just a few days; it seems to be fading away.

Controlled burns got a bad name, and deservedly so, when winds turned one into the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000. Obviously, they've got to be carried out with the greatest of care; no easy stunt during the dry times the West has been going through.

Springtime, once seen as a window for carrying out such operations, now is looked at warily; that's when Cerro Grande took a toll of hundreds of houses in Los Alamos, and had the scientists at the national laboratory at least a tad concerned about some of their more volatile chemical tinder.

Were it not for this summer's rains, perhaps later fall would have been the time to burn the slash on the watershed -- but then there's the worry about temperature inversions, and the serious problems of trapped smoke.

So three cheers to Ranger Bill Armstrong and all the other Forest Service folks who carried out a controlled burn in every sense of the term.

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