Fire Ecology and Forestry

On June 1, 2002, a thunderstorm rolled in over Philmont’s North Country, bringing with it several lightning strikes. The next day, four separate plumes of smoke could be seen on the northern horizon. By June 3rd, the fires had reached a total of 32,000 acres. Firefighters from across the country made their home at the Maverick Rodeo Grounds in Cimarron for the next two weeks in order to battle the blaze. The fire was finally contained on June 18th but not before burning 92,194 acres.

The entirety of Philmont’s north country was closed for until the end of that summer when a few selected trails were reopened. This caused Philmont to divert its 20,000+ participants for the summer of 2002 into the southern two-thirds of the ranch.

While the Ponil Complex Fire subsided, the aftermath was just beginning. A massive amount of erosion was occurring, leading to the loss of topsoil that clogged streams and prevented quick re-vegetation rates. This, in turn, sparked the occurrence of huge floods in the North and Middle Ponil Canyons and their drainage.

After a hot fire, there are obvious detrimental effects. The lack of vegetation gives way to erosion of topsoil, which inhibits re-vegetation and clogs stream beds. Fires can also sterilize soil by killing microorganisms and nutrients. However, there are also negative effects that are not so obvious. An effect called hydrophobicity occurs after a very hot fire comes through and burns away all of the surface vegetation. All plants have a waxy coating on their leaves called a cuticle that retains moisture for the plant. The fire vaporizes the cuticle and it sinks into the soil and solidifies, leaving a hard waxy layer anywhere from one to three inches below the topsoil. This ultimately prevents water from sinking into the soil, and seeds from germinating. Hydrophobic soil also increases loss of fertile topsoil by providing a firm layer that the soil can easily erode down during even a light rain.

Philmont quickly became proactive in impeding the devastating effects of erosion and water pollution by implementing several strategies. First, the ranch used aerial seeding to re-vegetate the 8,000 most severely burned acres on Philmont. However, much of the seed dropped did not germinate because of erosive effects. Philmont also employed the use of heavy machinery – a Feller-Buncher – which cut dead trees at the base and laid them perpendicular to the slope, in hopes of slowing down erosion. The following summer Philmont took on heavy re-seeding efforts with the help of thousands of Philmont participants. This will involve contour raking, and spreading seed and rice thatch.

Perhaps the biggest investment Philmont undertook, though, was the Fire Rehabilitation crew. The staff, consisting of a director, a support coordinator, crew foremen, and crew members worked all throughout Philmont’s north country, attempting to stop erosion and re-vegetate the forest. Throughout fall and winter, the fire crew had a major impact on the restoration of Philmont’s burned forest and, although at first glance, the work seems very small in light of the 28,000 acres, it was a major starting point from which plants will begin to re-grow.

Since the beginning of this project Philmont has planted over 59.2 acres of pine seedlings, aerially reseeded 8,306 acres, Feller Bunchered 72 acres, contour log fell 362 acres, and spread straw and hand seeded over 597 acres.