Reflecting on Our Home’s Future

The Sierra de los Valles viewed from the Los Alamos townsite after the Cerro Grande Fire. (Photo by Terry Foxx)

By Kathryn Laintz

Twenty years ago, the Cerro Grande Fire permanently altered Los Alamos. The devastation brought on by this fire is something so many people had to live through. I’m too young to have experienced life pre-Cerro Grande, so I can only imagine how hard it was for people to see the once densely forested Jemez completely decimated.

I did live through the Las Conchas fire in 2011. It was difficult for me to revisit the areas of wilderness I spent so much of my life exploring after they had been destroyed. I, like so many other New Mexicans, am incredibly fond of our ponderosa pine and aspen forests, and hope for their preservation. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are currently under threat. 

Compared to places that have been ravaged by wildfire, any well-forested area in the Jemez might outwardly appear healthy. However, there are many factors acting against our forests that make them great vectors for megafires — a scientific term used to categorize forest fires that burn over 150,000 acres, which is an unnatural occurrence. Both the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas Fires fall into this category. 

In order to fully explain why megafires like these happened, and understand why the forests of the Jemez are still at risk today, it is necessary to examine the historical environment of the area, and what the forest looked like before people first settled here. 

The truly undisturbed environment of the Jemez dates back before the 1900s. Back then, forest fires in the Southwest were categorized as low-intensity, surface fires that mostly burned through grassy undergrowth. Frequent, but small and slow-burning fires were beneficial for healthy forest conditions by maintaining an open understory and maintaining large stands of coniferous trees. 

The balanced forest structure between mature and old-growth trees, aspen, and openings with understory grasses, flowering plants, and shrubs prevented uncharacteristically high-intensity and severe fires. When severe fires did occur, they were a result of prolonged drought and lightning strikes during the summer months. These patterns are evidenced in fire scars in old-growth trees, however these fires were rare and typically burned in small patches. 

Then, when railroads connected New Mexico to the rest of the country in the 1880s, people settled in the Jemez and human activity started to impact the environment. Activities such as overgrazing cattle, logging, and fire suppression all had detrimental effects on the ecosystem that have made it more susceptible to fires. 

What proves to be the biggest threat to Jemez’s forest ecosystems is the same factor jeopardizing all at-risk ecosystems across the globe — climate change. On top of human activity dramatically shifting the natural state of the forest for over a century, climate change has brought increasing temperatures, drought, less available water (due to increasing demand for it), and extreme weather to the Jemez. All of which contribute to more severe fires that burn hotter and are harder to contain.

Today, the forest ecosystem of the Jemez looks a lot different than what it would be if left undisturbed by people and climate change. The natural forest structure of the Jemez should be groups of trees of different ages and sizes. Instead, there is a dense, continuous canopy of young and mid-age trees. Additionally, continual fire suppression has also allowed conifers to invade once naturally-occuring meadows, shrinking them down. 

Climate change and human activity have shifted the forest structure in the Jemez, and the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires have dramatically damaged the environment. Not only have the trees and meadows been affected, but riparian and aquatic systems also have been degraded. Watershed areas without meadows or big trees allow more sediment to pass into stream banks and stream-road crossings, harming both plant and animal life. Streams have also become straighter and narrower due to shrinking meadows, reducing quality habitat for fish.

Beyond the watersheds and aquatic environments, the aftermath of megafires in the Jemez has led to habitat loss for important species like the Jemez Mountain salamander and the Mexican Spotted Owl. Non-native and invasive species introduced by humans have decreased biodiversity and weakened ecological communities in the Jemez environment. Examples of invasive plant species currently growing in this area include Pigweed, Ragweed, and False Tarragon.

A Jemez Mountain Salamander. They are an endemic species, and can be found only in this area. (Photo by J.N. Stuart)

On a more positive note, there are many ongoing efforts to restore the environment in the Jemez back to a healthy state and repair some of the areas that have been ravaged by megafires. Some examples of current ecological repair are: 

Even still, the threat of climate change is on the global scale. I cannot help but continue to worry about the future of the forests surrounding Los Alamos, and if they will still be here for future generations to enjoy — as I have been so lucky to. My greatest hope is that New Mexicans will continue to support efforts to understand and help alleviate climate change, and that we continue to support agencies that are working to repair our forests so that they are less susceptible to megafires.

Week 5, Day 3: Water and the Landscape

Prescribed burns are an important part of land maintenance in fire-dependent ecosystems. This photo was taken during a prescribed burn in Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier National Monument in 2008. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

Today’s Take It Outside post is about water and the landscape. This week’s activities are brought to you in partnership with the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities (DPU), as part of our virtual water festival.

Water shapes our landscape in many ways, from eroding rocks, to allowing and limiting plant growth, to playing a decisive role in fire behavior. Today, learn about how water availability impacts you and your environment.

Look for our Droplet Dude to indicate virtual water festival activities. All are welcome to take part, and we especially welcome fourth graders!

Blog Post:

In today’s video blog post, Hanna Davis from Bandelier National Monument discusses the relationship between wildland fires and precipitation and humidity, and gives us a first-hand view of her job managing wildfire. Hanna is the Lead Fire Effects Monitor at Bandelier.

Craft:

Channel the water around your house into something fun by making a rain chain from materials lying around in your recycle bin! Hang it from a place like your roof, a tree, or a bush, where you can capture run-off.

You can also use the run-off from your roof to provide water for wildlife. Use rocks from your yard to direct rainwater into a small pool and make a wildlife water source. Start by locating a downspout at your house, collect rocks and/or a shallow container, and assemble them to make a small water hole for wildlife that is fed by the rain. Remember to place rocks in and near the pool so that insects and small animals can safely access and exit the pool.

Virtual Water Festival and Outdoor Challenge (Beginner): Outdoor Yard Survey

Check out today’s video blog post before starting today’s challenge.

Wildfire requires heat, fuel, and oxygen to burn. Reduce potential fuels outside your home to help keep fires from spreading near your house. Also, look for any places outside where water is being wasted.

Ways kids can help:

  • Clear brush and vegetation away from your home. 
  • Rake up and dispose of all pine needles, leaves, and dead grasses in your yard. Use your county yard trimming roll cart to dispose of these materials if you don’t have a compost pile at home. 
  • Look around for any trees that have branches extending over your home. These should be trimmed, but by an adult!
  • Check your outside faucets for leaks. Use a bucket to collect the water if you can’t fix the leak right away. Use that water for plants, either inside or out. 

The Los Alamos County website has more information on wildfire preparedness.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

A close-up of a burned tree. (Photo by Craig Martin)

Venture out and look for signs that the presence or absence of water has impacted our landscape, including through drought, fire, flooding, and fire recovery. Can you find:

  • Beetle-damaged trees
  • Charred trees
  • Incised water channels
  • Exposed rock where soil has eroded away
  • Rocks and sand deposited elsewhere by water
  • Young growth in a burned area

Other Resources:

  • The Los Alamos Fire Department is working on wildfire mitigation projects around the county. Learn more about this project, and neighborhoods of focus, on their Facebook page. They can also do wildfire safety assessments of your property. For more information, contact them
  • The National Fire Protection Association has tips for keeping neighborhoods and homes safe during wildfire.
  • Learn more about wildfire management and the effects of the Las Conchas Fire on Bandelier National Monument’s fire management webpage.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about water in your surroundings! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore water in Northern New Mexico!