Nature Notes; The Coyote Fire: A “Good Burn” in the Guadalupes

They were a homeland for the Mescalero Apache, and a landmark for Butterfield Stage drivers. The Guadalupe Mountains rise 5,000 feet above the desert plains and sand dunes in Far West Texas.

The surroundings are misleading. The high country of Guadalupe Mountains National Park is an oasis – forested in pines and firs, oaks and aspens.

In spring 2016, much of that forest burned for the first time in a century. But officials say the fire was a boon for the park, and for the mountain ecosystem.

It began May 7th, with a lightning strike at the park’s north end. It struck near Coyote Peak. The blaze that followed was named the Coyote Fire.

John Montoya is the Guadalupes’ fire manager. He remembers the Cutoff Fire from 2011.

Montoya said that burn prepared him and his crew for this year’s blaze.

“What we had learned from that fire was just the way it acted, the fire behavior, and the path the fire had taken,” he said. “The Coyote Fire started in pretty much the same area where the Cutoff started, in the Cutoff Mountains, so we pretty much could plan that it was going to burn the same scenario as the Cutoff Fire did.”

Montoya expected the fire to move north and east. The Dog Canyon ranger station was in the path.

“We prepped some of those structures in Dog Canyon,” Montoya said, “the ranger station, some of the housing areas, the barn and so forth – cutting grass, removing some of the vegetation around those buildings. Because we were just sure the fire was going to move in that same direction.”

Sure enough, the fire reached Dog Canyon two days later. There was no damage to structures.

To prevent the fire from spreading north into New Mexico, hot shot crews conducted “burnouts” at the state line – burning up potential fuel. And fire engines wet the area down. As a result, the Coyote Fire only burned 300 acres into New Mexico.

Typically, spring winds blow from the southwest. But winds began to push the fire to the south, into the park’s highland center. Officials made the call: close the backcountry trails to visitors.

Montoya called up a “Type 2 Incident Management Team,” a team with specialized personnel including fire-behavior analysts and meteorologists. By the end of the first week, there were almost 300 people working the blaze.

Park officials decided to let the fire burn. The Guadalupes’ rugged terrain makes firefighting dangerous. But the park’s decision was also informed by wilderness principles. The Guadalupes are the state’s only designated wilderness.

“It’s kind of a unique situation we have here – a lot of the park is wilderness,” Montoya said. “We have wilderness concerns, where we don’t want to drop a lot of retardant. Something else we don’t want to do is put a bunch of hand lines, where we have crews digging lines in. Basically that creates scars on the landscape. If those aren’t treated or the vegetation pulled back they basically turn into new trails.”

The fire moved into a densely wooded area known as “the Bowl.” In the park’s history, the Bowl had never burned. In fact, it had been 80 to 100 years since a wildfire had been recorded there. Firefighters did keep the blaze from moving down toward the visitor center.

The Coyote Fire affected almost all of the park’s high country. It was active between May 7th and June 17th, and, all told, it burned 14,442 acres.

But before the smoke had cleared, new grass was growing on charred ground. Saplings and dead wood that could have fueled a catastrophic blaze were gone. Ancient trees stood intact.

The Guadalupes backcountry reopened June 18. But visitors won’t find a devastated landscape there, Montoya said.

“Of course there are going to be some areas that are burned,” he said, “but what we like to say is that it’s a mosaic pattern. It’s not just a blackened landscape, but there are some areas that are burned in the oak brush here, a dense stand of trees here, so it’s basically a variation of patterns of burn.”

Till the 1960s, fire suppression was the rule in parks and other public lands. But wildfires naturally cull and renew the landscape. And the Coyote Fire was a prime example of what land managers consider a “good burn.”

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.