Changing Perceptions of Fire
Today, fire management policies reflect both a commitment to public safety and the understanding that fire is a natural component of ecosystems. Park managers still suppress fires that threaten lives and property; now they also ignite prescribed fires to restore natural conditions to areas where fire has been unnaturally excluded.
Prescribed fire is one of the most important tools used to manage fire today. A scientific prescription for the fire, prepared in advance, describes its objectives, fuels, size, and the precise weather and other environmental conditions under which it will burn. If it moves outside the predetermined areas or conditions suddenly change, the fire may be suppressed.
The purpose of many prescribed fires is to reduce fuels. In areas where fires were routinely suppressed, fuels have built up, creating the potential for a much larger, hotter fire than would naturally occur. Prescribed fires reduce ground fuels without harming larger trees. Fires are also used to restore grasslands and habitat diversity.
Prescribed fires burning under optimum weather conditions are beneficial; wildfires caused by the carelessness of humans generally burn under the worst possible weather conditions and can destroy forests and endanger firefighters.
Relict Systems and Fire
Fire and the Future
Obviously, lightning and irresponsible people will continue to cause fires. We must insure that both natural and human-caused wildfires do not burn with catastrophic intensity; such infernos could destroy relict natural zones that are integral to the Guadalupe ecosystem. Prescribed burns carried out during optimal weather conditions can reduce hazardous fuel accumulations and insure that parklands are returned to a state of equilibrium where neither lightning nor human-caused fires can seriously affect the stability of highly significant communities of life. When this goal is achieved, most fires can be monitored and allowed to burn.
Prescribed Burns at Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Prescribed Burns in McKittrick Canyon
We know little about fire frequency and its effects in McKittrick Canyon, but descriptions and paintings from the 1930s show us that the vegetation has changed since that time. Then as now, the woodland canopy consisted of maple, walnut, ash, and the large chinkapin oak. What has changed is the density of the undergrowth; the open, grassy ground cover of sixty years ago has been invaded by a dense tangle of wavy-leaf oak and other shrubby, highly flammable plants. It is this flourishing undergrowth that under extremely dry weather conditions could burn hot enough to engulf and kill the canopy trees.
Park managers began to tackle this problem during the spring of 1997, by burning eighty acres along the canyon floor. The burns went smoothly, and the area greened up nicely in the months following the fire. Selected plots in the canyon will be monitored to study the long term effects of prescribed fires on the vegetation.
Prescribed Burns In The Highcountry
The park's most recent prescribed fire burned 550 acres on Frijole Ridge on November 19 through 22 of 1999. Fall and winter fires burn with less intensity than summer fires; cooler temperatures and longer nights make them easier to manage. Although strong winds on November 21 caused the fire to burn 60 acres outside of the prescribed area, the fire stayed on the ground, burning in grass, shrubs, and dead wood, and did not kill large trees.
Fire management will continue to be a "hot" issue in the park with additional prescribed fires planned for The Bowl as well as other areas in the park.
Did You Know?
With its temperate climate, abundant sunshine year-round, and several distinct life zones, Guadalupe Mountains National Park provides excellent habitat for butterflies; more than 90 species have been reported within the park.