BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT, N.M. -- As Bandelier National Monument interpreter Rod Torrez drove to work last week past trees charred by last summer's Las Conchas blaze and a sign warning of "extreme" fire danger, he had an uncomfortable epiphany.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, this is exactly like the day the Las Conchas fire started,'" he said in an interview in his office near the monument's visitor center Wednesday. "It was weird."
On that day, June 26, 2011, dry forest conditions combined with some new spring growth and hard winds to create a perfect opportunity for a downed power line to spark a raging fire. Before it ended five weeks later, the Las Conchas fire had burned 157,000 acres, including 20,800 in the monument, or about 67 percent of its total area (Land Letter, Aug. 4, 2011).
Until it was usurped by this spring's Whitewater-Baldy fire in southwestern New Mexico, which burned almost 298,000 acres, the Las Conchas blaze was the biggest wildfire in New Mexico history.
While the fire burned in a mosaic pattern, about 10,000 acres burned severely enough to almost destroy all vegetation and sear the soil, hindering its ability to absorb rainfall. And more than 1,200 of the monument's 3,000 archaeological sites also burned, damaging masonry and pottery in some areas, and one ranger cabin was lost to the blaze.
Now, one year later, many of the monument's scorched forest stands are making a comeback, and it has reopened its doors to visitors, with some restrictions. But with the Southwest's annual midsummer heavy rains on the way, and tinderbox conditions again this year, monument officials are worried that the area could see even more damage before summer's end.
When the fire reached the monument, it roared through upper Frijoles Canyon, but the lower canyon, the heart of the monument, was spared. The visitor center, administrative offices and the monument's main attraction, the ruins of the Ancient Puebloan village of Tyuonyi, remained untouched, thanks to a successful fire line cut by firefighters about 2 miles up the canyon. But some storms late last summer swelled Frijoles Creek and other waterways, eroding stream banks in many of the watersheds burned by the fire.
Floods spared the lower Frijoles Canyon, although some areas saw severe erosion.
Park officials are worried their luck will run out this year.
"When the monsoons hit, that's when we'll see some real problems," Torrez said, referring to the Southwestern wet season. A flood could waterlog the historic visitor center, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, he said. "We're looking at the possibility of a pretty significant flood," he added.
Craig Allen, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Jemez Mountain Field Station, said the wet season will provide a test of the monument's hydrological recovery after a wildfire. "From what we've seen in the past," he said, "these watersheds are vulnerable to flooding for the next two to three years."
There's one area of the heart of the monument that will remain above the flood line. When the Puebloan people constructed the village of Tyuonyi 700 years ago, they built it just outside the 100-year floodplain.
'What we like to see after a fire'
The same water that could wreak havoc along waterways is also what is needed for the recovery of the forest ecosystem.
A good soaking in April provided enough moisture to encourage sprouts of new growth in the understory -- at least in some places -- and ecologists are hoping the summer monsoons bring more, which would also lessen the risk of a new wildfire.
A year after the fire, emerald green gambel oak and locust have begun to blanket the forest floor, below blackened ponderosa pines. And yet in some areas where the fire burned hottest, ghost forests of charred standing dead trees and ash-gray soils devoid of ground cover are still all that remain.
On Apache Mesa, above Frijoles Canyon a few miles north of the visitor center, Torrez stops his white National Park Service SUV to point out one of the luckier areas burned by the Las Conchas fire. Here, the ponderosa pines are scarred but alive, and oak is taking advantage of the light reaching the forest floor through the fire-thinned stand.
"There's been fire through here several times, so it's a pretty healthy recovery," Torrez said. "The undergrowth is coming back pretty strong. This is what we like to see after a fire."
The monument also had done some mechanical thinning of the stand before the Las Conchas fire, which seems to have been effective in reducing the intensity of the blaze, he added.
"Almost everything they treated fared better, except where there were some heavy adjacent fuels" that burned hot enough to torch the crowns of even thinned stands, Torrez said.
A few miles to the northwest, a ponderosa pine stand along a dirt road did not fare as well. There, blackened trees tower over a forest floor that is largely lifeless, apart from a few scattered saplings. In one area, a long finger of gray ash near a blackened tree stump marks the spot where a large felled tree was incinerated, leaving only scraps of blackened bark.
Ponderosa pine forests historically burned every five to 15 years. The ecosystem depends on fire to clear out young trees and trigger the seeds of certain plants to sprout. But decades of unchecked growth that took advantage of a long period of fire suppression by federal land managers has left many Western forests overcrowded and vulnerable. Unusually hot-burning, high-intensity wildfires can kill entire stands of trees.
Allen said in some places, fire-ravaged areas of forest may transition to a different forest type altogether. Blackened ponderosa pine stands with lots of dead trees may give way to aspen, shrubs and other vegetation that thrives in disturbed areas.
In some areas that were severely burned, there are ponderosa pines that are still hanging on, but their fate is touch and go, Allen said.
"If the ponderosa pine has less than 10 percent of its crown green, it's in trouble," he said. "We're hoping that some of those trees that got pushed right to the edge make it. But that remains to be seen."
How much moisture the Jemez Mountains receive in the next couple of years could mean the difference between death and survival for those trees, he added.
As the monument's landscape has changed, so has the visitor experience.
Visitors now must board a shuttle bus in nearby White Rock to get to the main area of the monument, and hikers can only explore the upper part of the Falls Trail, which once led visitors from a parking lot near the visitor center all the way to the Rio Grande. And all of the artifacts formerly on display in the monument's museum, which were moved to a storage facility in Arizona when the fire approached, remain there for safekeeping in case the canyon floods.
But most visitors are unlikely to see changes in the monument. Aside from erosion along Frijoles Creek, the missing bridge near the visitor center and sandbags piled against the side of the building, the monument appears as it did before the fire. Most visitors never venture to burned areas in the northern part of the park.
While managers are thankful the centerpiece of the monument escaped the flames, its unscathed, healthy trees and meadow grasses make it difficult for visitors to understand the need for precautions against flash flooding, Torrez said.
"Visitors don't see the burns," he said. "They just see the preparations for the floods that could occur because of the burns further up the canyon. So it's hard to communicate the need for them to the public."
While the Las Conchas fire burned far hotter and faster in places than wildfires in the region historically did, the blaze did bring a few unforeseen benefits, Torrez said.
For instance, with visitors no longer able to drive into the monument due to concerns about the pandemonium that would ensue if a flash flood pulsed down the canyon, a long-considered shuttle system has become a necessity instead of a wish list item.
"With 250,000 visitors a year, it gets pretty congested," Torrez said. "This may be one silver lining -- we can test it."
Another unexpected benefit of the fire was the discovery of an illegal marijuana patch in a remote area of the upper Frijoles Canyon.
When the smoke cleared, the operation's kelly green plants stood in stark relief to the blackened and defoliated trees surrounding the patch. Only part of it burned, and the surviving plants were removed, Torrez said.
Rising temperatures, rising fire risk
The Las Conchas conflagration was one among several large wildfires the Southwest has seen in the past decade.
As average temperatures in the region have risen, its forests have become drier, Allen said. Drought conditions and the onset of climate change, along with fuel buildups from a century of fire suppression beginning around 1900, have led to an increase in severe fires in recent years (Land Letter, March 1).
Particularly dry conditions this year have left forests vulnerable to wildfire throughout the interior West, and several fires are now burning across the region. According to a fire and smoke map released last week by NASA, wildfires are burning thousands of acres in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
New command center
The next time a large wildfire torches the Jemez Mountains, federal officials will be even better prepared to respond, thanks to a new command center that is in the works.
Last Tuesday, the anniversary of the start of the Las Conchas fire, officials from the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees Los Alamos National Laboratory, broke ground on a new, permanent building for the regional Interagency Fire Center.
Located in the lab's Area 49, not far from Bandelier National Monument, the 6,400-square-foot facility will replace a makeshift, warehouse-like building and "mini-mobiles" set up after the 2000 Cerro Grande fire but proved inadequate to house interagency crews and equipment during the Las Conchas blaze and other fires, officials said.
"It is a tremendous asset, because it allows us to be right here in our own neighborhood to respond to fires," said Kevin Smith, manager of NNSA's Los Alamos Site Office. "And right now, boy, is it dry."