Multiple concerns about planned fire in Santa Fe Watershed expressed in fractious public meeting

Jonathan Glass   October 13, 2023 

On October 5, the US Forest Service announced that crews are working on building containment lines for the upcoming “North Aztec Springs prescribed fire” in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed.  The fire was recently slated to be ignited by the agency after Monday, October 16.  However, in the October 13 public meeting in Santa Fe about the fire, the agency stated that the fire will not be ignited during the week of October 16 because of current weather forecasts and dry vegetation. 

The fire is part of a land management strategy which the agency states is “centered on long-term forest health, including reducing forest fuels and using prescribed fire on the landscape.”  The fire is intended to be limited to 650 acres just to the east of Santa Fe’s Hyde Park Estates neighborhood off of Hyde Park Road. 

Over forty persons, many from communities proximate to the planned fire, attended the October 13 meeting, which was co-hosted by the Forest Service and the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition.  Concerns raised about the planned fire included:

— the risk of escaped fire (as occurred as a result of three separate Forest Service burning projects last year in Santa Fe National Forest)

— the lack of evacuation plans for nearby communities in case of escaped fire

— insufficient public notice about the two public meetings scheduled about the planned fire

— a closed lane on two-lane Hyde Park Road which is the only egress for numerous residents, caused by an ongoing PNM project

— the existence of flammable years-old slash piles by the area to be ignited

— a lack of available drones for heat-sensing operations after the fire

At the meeting, the Forest Service did not significantly dispute the importance of any of the concerns raised, but neither did it cancel the planned fire.  The agency did state, however, that weather conditions and lack of moisture were making it increasingly unlikely that the an acceptable window for the fire would be found before the end of the year.

Below is a map with the area to be ignited.  The red lines to the west are property boundaries.

Composite map from a) US Forest Service base map from Topo Maps+, b) private land database from Topo Maps+, and c) North Aztec Springs prescribed fire unit perimeter from US Forest Service

Below is the southwest portion of a “Value at Risk” map supplied by the Forest Service for the North Aztec Springs prescribed fire.  The burn area (in gold) is about half a mile from houses on Paseo Primero, a mile from houses on Cerros Colorados, and a mile and a half from houses on Upper Canyon Road. 

 Map courtesy US Forest Service
Years-old unburned slash piles by the northwest portion of the North Aztec Springs burn unit, Santa Fe Municipal Watershed.  Photos: US Forest Service

On October 12, the Santa Fe New Mexican published an article by Scott Wyland about the North Aztec Springs burn and other upcoming cutting and burning work in the Santa Fe Watershed.  The article states that a Forest Service specialist acknowledged that the piles are a significant fire hazard and that they would ideally be removed before the burn.  However, the specialist also stated that it was not practical to remove the piles before the burn because the agency has a “limited window” for the burn.  

Asked about the piles, a Forest Service spokesperson replied to Public Journal with the following statement:

Our fire managers are mitigating risk by planning to burn only under specific conditions and parameters identified in our prescribed fire prescription. We are also taking necessary measures with prep work to reduce firebrand sources along the north end of the unit near to where the piles are located.  Crews are in process of moving heavier fuels away from the line so they will consume in the interior of the burn without throwing firebrands across the line.