Barry Green, a construction protection expert with the Southwest Incident Command Team addresses the media group Wednesday at the Medio Fire. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Rian Ream, a prescribed fire fuels technician with the Santa Fe National Forest Espanola Ranger District, describes fire operations Wednesday. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.comWhite smoke along the ridge at the Medio Fire Wednesday is the color the team likes to see as explained below. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Signs such as these thanking firefighters are posted throughout the area of the Medio Fire. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Los Alamos Reporter spent several hours Wednesday with other journalists invited to visit the restricted area along Pacheco Canyon Road near the Medio Fire which has burned some 2,939 acres and is 21 percent contained as of Thursday morning.The media group observed aircraft activities overhead and received a briefing from fire officials before setting in agency along the narrow, unmaintained dirt road.
Because of the steep terrain and lack of access, the Mount Taylor hotshots hiked some 1,800 feet uphill to start their shift Wednesday and it takes a lot of steam just to get there. When the fire started more than a week ago, officials said it was difficult to get crews because everyone was busy with other fires but then firefighters came on their days off or when they were freed up from other locations. These firefighters work 16 hours a day for a 14-day minimum.
Rian Ream, a prescribed fire fuels technician with the Santa Fe National Forest Espanola Ranger District who was a hotshot for 10 years before getting into fuels, said his goal is to prevent a fire like Las Conchas happening in the Sangres. He explained the dynamics of the wildlife operation pointing out that hotshot crews were bring hand lines down the ridge from the main fire while huge buckets of water from the dip site at Nambe Reservoir are dropped to cool the fire off below where the hotshots are working.
Public information officer Joel Barnett explained that crews set low intensity fire in front of the main fire to remove ground and ladder fuels to keep fire out of the crown fuels. When conditions allow, aerial ignition devices the size of ping pong balls are dropped usually in the early evening. On Wednesday evening, efforts to do aerial ignition were negated because of the weather over the fire. There was a light sprinkle of rain over the fire but winds made it unsafe to use aerial assets and the helicopter was not used to light anything.
Traveling further along Pacheco Canyon Road, the group spent some time with Barry Green, a construction protection expert with the Southwest Incident Command Team at a residence where crews have set up 5,000 gallon “pumpkins” of water which is spread by 50 sprinkler heads and 5,000 feet of hose. Green said the water brings the relative humidity up. The crews clear pine needles and debris from around the homes and off the roofs and scrape lines around the buildings.
Green said residents some 20 homes along the Pacheco Canyon Road are on the “set” stage of the “Ready Set Go” evacuation plan. While the system was set up at two of the homes, Green said eight fire engines are working at other residences. With the approach of fire, he said the system will spread some 10,000 gallons in 1 ½ hours. His crews will stay with the firefighters as long as they can. Keeping the area wet also protects homes from spot fires or ember showers, he said. All but three residents have actually left the area and the three who remain are ready to leave as soon as they are advised to by fire officials.
Green said people from the area were super happy to have the construction protection crew there. He said they were ready to leave with no hesitation. Typically crews clear first 10 feet perimeter, then 30 feet and if needed 100 feet of defensible space. The area has thick, lush vegetation and homes are nestled into the side of the canyon.
Asked how the COVID-19 situation is affecting operations, Green said the camaraderie is different because it’s impossible to see whether someone is smiling or frowning behind their mask.
Going further up the rough canyon road, extensive areas where crews had cut vegetation creating a fire break and hauled it across the road where it is stacked and will eventually be chipped and placed back on the forest. After a fire crews will go back in with rakes and hand tools and smooth out the terrain to remove signs of fire suppression efforts, Barnett said.
At the next stop, Ream said he spends a lot of time in the SFNF off the job, camping, fishing and hunting.
“The forest is important to us and I feel a lot of ownership for the land,” he said.
Ream pointed out smoldering wood and red needles on pine trees that burned when the fire came toward the prescribed burn area from 2019 and was halted in its progress. He noted that the area burned every 10 to 15 years naturally before fire suppression as can be told by the tree rings.
Ream discussed the Santa Fe Mountain Lands Resiliency Project (SFMLRP) that stretches all the way from La Cueva near Pecos and wraps around to the Rio Nambe which is on the other side of the Rio en Medio where the Medio Fire started. Currently, SFNF has the the Pacheco Canyon Project, the Hyde Park Project and the Santa Fe Watershed Protection Project which are all being tied together.
The SFMLR Project is a vegetation management project spanning some 50,566 acres and designed to improve the ecosystem resilience of the landscape to wildfire, climate change, and insect outbreaks. It involves non-commercial mechanical and hand-thinning treatments on up to 21,000 acres and prescribed fire on up to 43,000 acres and riparian restoration on up to 557 acres. The project is expected to last 10 to 15 years.
The next areas under the project will be the Tesuque drainages which will tie into Hyde Park and into the Santa Fe watershed and on to Canada de Los Alamos to La Cueva, Ream said. He has already scouted out areas for the project and archeologists and biologists are surveying those locations for goshawks and Mexican spotted owls. The goal of the ongoing project is to return fire to the landscape so that it comes back to its natural state. Only small diameter trees are removed, not old growth trees.
Fire officials reported Thursday morning that getting the fire up out of the Pacheco Canyon was a major effort and that there had been a risk of the fire getting south of Road 102 and entering into completely new territory and putting the lower Pacheco Canyon residences at risk.
Fire officials say that the public can gauge how the operations are progressing by the color of the smoke visible from the surrounding area. They like to see a white color and not a defined column. The more rapid the fire burns, the darker the smoke gets so they like to see light-colored smoke strung out along the ridge.
Meanwhile Stage 1 fire restrictions are now in effect for the SFNF. No campfires are allowed at dispersed camp sites – only in Forest Service-built fire rings in developed campgrounds. No smoking is allowed outside enclosed vehicles or buildings or developed recreation sites.
Virtual community fire update meetings are held at 6 p.m. daily and may be viewed on the Santa Fe National Forest Facebook page.