KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Wildland firefighters continue to make progress on creating fuel breaks on the eastern-most remote forest area of Kirtland Air Force Base.
As of July 18, 2019, the team of six wildland firefighters have thinned out 70 acres of forest expanding on the initial fuel breaks that were created since the project broke ground in spring of 2019.
“What we are doing is ecosystem restoration and at the same time, building a fuel break to prevent a wildfire from leaving the base and going on to forest service property or private property,” said Robert Morales, Kirtland wildland support module lead.
Morales estimates that the area being treated has not seen fire for over 100 years, which causes trees to be intertwined and overgrown. If a wildfire were to start on a hot, windy day, almost nothing could be done to stop it once the wildfire is in the crowns.
The crown of a tree is the branches and leaves extending from the trunk or main stems of the tree.
“If we get a wildfire [that] starts and it gets into the crowns, there is nothing to stop it,” said Morales. “It’s going to go on until the wind stops or it hits an opening.”
Those openings are fuel breaks within the forest. The wildfire will lose fuel to burn with the lack of crowns available. The fire, according to Morales, will hit the ground and slow down, creating an opportunity for firefighters to come and make a stand and try to suppress it.
“We estimate that there are 2,000-3,000 trees per acre,” said Morales. “Right now we are trying to get it down to 150-200 trees per acre.”
The process of thinning out the forest and creating fuel breaks not only helps in cases of wildfires, but overall health for the forest environment.
“It helps the habitat in that local area and it helps the health of the forest,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Juan Alvarez, 377th Mission Support Group commander. “We are so overgrown that all the trees and vegetation are competing for that water. By thinning out the area, we hope to improve the health of the trees and the vegetation and also spur on the wildlife in that location.”
Morales suggests that 5,000 acres of forest needs to be treated to make an overall difference. Based on current manning and equipment available to the wildland firefighter team, the overall health of the forest and wildlife is accomplished 10 acres at a time.
“We will flag a unit of maybe 15-20 acres, and that is our target for the month,” said Morales. Once we get that unit done, we will flag another unit. That way there is always a beginning and an end to our work. It makes it a little more manageable and we don’t go stir crazy thinking about how much work there really is here.”
Treating 15-20 acres of the forest each month are short-term goals for the wildland fire team. The long-term goals focus on proactive practices against wildfires, promoting a healthy environment for the forest and allowing the mission of Kirtland AFB to continue.
“Long term, we want to have a healthy forest that will enable wildlife to prosper but also allow our mission to continue and to be good neighbors to our local community to ensure that there is no type of incident,” said Alvarez. “My personal opinion is we need to continue to do this for many decades more to ensure that the threat won’t exist in the way that it does today.”