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Palabras Pintorescas: Lessons learned from past forest fires

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By Editha Bartley

We all know that a tiny spark that falls on a very dry forest starts a forest fire, instantly. The recent fires just over the hill from us brought back so many memories of fires here, not all that long ago.

June is traditionally the driest month in the state’s calendar year. June 28, 1968, was a dry month, and a hot, dry day. Someone dropped a burning cigarette butt in a high pasture here, and within minutes we had a big fire burning. This fire was headed to Mora, and had many hills and canyons to feed it on its rapid trip. The salvation that time was the U.S. Forest Service, which ordered up a slurry bomber and a very vibrant Job Core training school right down the road at Camp Luna. Within six hours we had almost 500 firefighters on scene, and a bomber dropping red slurry on the fast moving fire. We watched that bomber cut off the top of a tall fir tree with its long wing. Now that is what one would call a low-flying airplane!
Many fire trucks, several bulldozers and all sorts of hand-held firefighting gear miraculously appeared as well, and this formidable war on the fire worked very well.

Big boss Jim and I saddled up our horses and rode through what was left of our upper pasture on the 4th of July, just after most of the fire was extinguished. We had no idea where we were at times, because every visible landmark had been destroyed and covered with thick ash.

Firefighting ground crews continued to dig out smoldering roots and hot spots, but the big and explosive danger was over. And to our amazement the forest service also began spreading grass and clover seed on these hot ashes.

We learned that was part of their firefighting plan, and it was certainly a good one. Miraculously, late in the afternoon of the 4th of July the monsoon thunderstorms began. Remember, it always rains here on the 4th of July, but sadly this year seems to be the exception.

The ashes served as a base for the dropped seed, and in a short period of time we had green grass and clover growing all over this burned area. And that meant the mountainside would not just wash away and pollute our large watershed. Oh, happy day!

I know the circumstances are very different in the Los Alamos area, particularly because such a huge acreage has burned, and I also imagine it scorched the earth, because it was so hot. I have learned that Santa Clara Pueblo has already secured thousands of tree seedlings to replant its lost watershed, and I am sure the pueblo will also spread grass, flower and clover seed on the ashes. Their watershed has been directly impacted by this huge fire.

The lieutenant Governor of Santa Clara Pueblo gave a moving eulogy at the recent memorial service for John Harrington, who managed our Mora Tree Research Center.

Editha Bartley lives in Gascon in Mora County. She may be reached at 454-0563.