On July 5, 2018, Philmont General Manager Kevin Dowling sat down in front of a group of staff members waiting to hear the news. Microphone in hand he read the statement in front of him.
“Philmont has made the right yet difficult decision to close the backcountry for treks and individual programs for the remainder of the 2018 summer season” he said as staff members began to cry and hug each other. It was the first time in the eight-decade history of Philmont Scout Ranch that the ranch was closed to participants for the entire summer.
Thirty-five days before, on May 31, the Ute Park Fire ignited about 13 miles away from base camp. It would eventually burn 27,000 acres of Philmont land. Just six days before Dowling made that announcement, the Morris Creek fire started on the neighboring UU Bar Ranch.
The Ute Park fire, which started as a structure fire in Ute Park, New Mexico, quickly spread to an estimated 50-100 acres by 3 p.m., about an hour after the fire was first called in and noticed by Philmont staff.
By the end of the day on the 31st, almost 100 Philmont staffers had been evacuated from Ponil where the conservation department was holding their department training, ranger training crews had been evacuated from Turkey Creek and other backcountry areas, and the staff at Cimarroncito, who had called in to report the fire they spotted from the top of their rock-climbing site, had been bussed back from their camp. The fire was burning at a rate of 1,000 acres per hour.
Thanks to rain on June 3, fire crews were able to get ahead of the fire, and by June 7 the incident management team announced that crews had completed a fire line that would hold off westward movement of the fire. On the 9th crews would begin leaving the area, heading off to fight more fires around the region as the fire season continued, and on June 17 the still burning fire would be officially 100 percent contained.
Once the fire was contained, the focus changed. The decimation of the central country created many lingering conditions that needed to be addressed. Water quality and runoff became the primary concern. Root systems of a living forest help manage water runoff and drainage, ash and debris from the fire contaminated many of the natural water sources. “The Black,” as the burned area was called, remained closed to campers until the 2021 season, when daily guided hikes were allowed through only a small portion of the area.
Highway 64 which runs through Cimarron Canyon, the heart of the burned area from Cimarron through Ute Park, closed 6 times in 2019 due to flooding.
“With nothing to stop (the runoff,) it was shooting out of the side canyons like fire hydrants and waterfalls” said Lee Hughes, who joined the Philmont team as Director of Conservation in May 2019.
According to Hughes, one of the priorities after the burn was slowing water velocity with catch basins. Essentially digging ponds that would slow the water flow and create a place for silt and small debris to be deposited. As crews worked to manage the runoff issues, the work on the ground shifted from the past to the future.
The news that the Boy Scout’s largest high adventure base had been through a devastating natural disaster brought a lot of phone calls from people looking to help, said Hughes. Corporations came forward with offers to help fund the reforestation effort, but many backed out upon hearing that the focus would be thinning the remaining forests.
“There is no reforestation effort,” he told them. “The priority was the unburned forest.”
And no one wanted to be associated with cutting down trees.
To start, Hughes said, they needed to create defensible space. Places where crews could access to fight fires, and routes for evacuation and emergency vehicles. Philmont backcountry roads are muddy, rocky, and notoriously difficult to drive. Many roads that are accessible to Philmont trucks and SUVs, would not be passable for fire trucks or emergency vehicles.
Along with that they needed to do something much neglected at Philmont, fuel reduction.
“Fire, when it’s not catastrophic, is beneficial to the system,” said Lee Hughes. Many ecosystems rely on ecological disturbances as part of their life cycles.
Philmont has a variety of ecosystems, from the short grass prairies, to the aspen stands in the Baldy Mountain region. But one of the most common, and most iconic, is the ponderosa pine forest.
Ponderosas are what are called a fire-adapted species. They’ve evolved over time to be resistant to, and even benefit from, wildfire conditions. As the trees age they drop their lower branches, allowing the thick bark to withstand a ground fire without it creeping up the branches and into the crown. In a healthy ponderosa forest a fire would burn along the underbrush, taking out small trees, grasses and brush, and eventually burn out after consuming the available fuel.
In an unhealthy forest, with significant underbrush and crowding, the fire will utilize what Hughes calls “ladder fuels,” smaller trees and lower branches that help the flames jump from the forest floor into the crown which can lead to devastating results.
In 1910 3 million acres were burned in Washington, Idaho and Montana. The Great Fire of 1910, or the Big Burn, is still the largest wildfire in U.S. history.
As Jacob Roberts wrote in his 2015 article “The Best of Intentions” the fire led Ferdinand A. Silcox, who after fighting the Big Burn went on to become the chief of the Forest Service in 1933, to institute the 10 a.m. rule. “Fire was viewed as a scourge that destroyed land the Forest Service was meant to protect” writes Roberts. As a result, came the directive that all fires were to be put out by 10 a.m. the morning after they were first reported.
What had once been viewed by the native communities in the west as a natural, healthy and beneficial part of the ecosystem quickly became public enemy number one.
“But these short-term successes created side effects unrecognized at the time. Silcox’s zero-tolerance policy is partially responsible for the massive fires that routinely blaze through America’s forests today. After nearly a century of fire-management practices based on Silcox’s ideas, fires have not been allowed to burn dead plant matter and underbrush regularly. When a wildfire is sparked, either by humans or other means, it has substantially more fuel to consume than in Silcox’s era. The extra fuel allows wildfires to burn longer and hotter and can lead to megafires,” writes Roberts.
Mary Stuever is a district forester for the state of New Mexico. While the district she oversees doesn’t include Philmont she has long ties to the camp.
“I went to Philmont when I was in high school,” she said. “And I came back in college and worked there one summer as a ranger, and then I went off and worked for the forest service.”
Later, while hiking the Continental Divide Trail “I was like ‘I wanna go back to Philmont’” she said. “You know, ‘one more summer.’”
In 1982 Stuever came back to Philmont and worked two summers as a Ranger Trainer. At the end of the summer of 1983, she worked with a few other staff members to write a proposal for Philmont to utilize grant money and create the Philmont Field Guide.
“As the author of the Philmont Field Guide, I kept a close relationship with Philmont,” she said.
“Every single landowner is faced with this issue when they have a big large catastrophic fire, of do we put our resources toward what we can do to help mend the landscape with this big large catastrophic fire? Or do we put our resources towards the part of our property that hasn’t burned yet because now we see that had the area been properly thinned and managed etc. the fire intensity wouldn’t have been so hot. And the damage, the fire severity, wouldn’t have been so drastic. So you know what’s the bigger thing?”
“Right now we’re trying to mitigate the next catastrophic fire,” said Lee Hughes, Philmont’s conservation director.
But what does that entail, and how do you scale that over Philmont’s 140,000 acres?
For Hughes, it’s a multi-faceted approach. Starting with creating defensible space, thinning the forests, burning the slash piles, and eventually leading to Philmont’s first ever supervised burn.
Right now, there are four forestry crews working to create a fire break along Beaubien Road leading to Miner’s Park, Crater Lake, Beaubien, Phillips Junction and beyond.
“That’s the main route out of the south country,” said Hughes. If the fire had happened any later in summer, when there were Scouts on the ranch as well as more fires in the region and fewer fire crews available to help, there would have been campers and staff stuck up there with no way out, he said.
“It’s dual purpose,” he added. The road can be used as an evacuation route, but also a way to get fire crews and equipment into the south country.
So, like a doctor trying to cure an ailment, Lee Hughes wrote a prescription. Cut everything 12 inches DBH (diameter at breast height, the standard forester measurement) or smaller, focusing on white fir, Douglas fir and juniper all of which are not fire-adapted species like the ponderosas are.
“If you take those (trees) out, it tends to result in the fire structure you’re looking for,” said Hughes.
“When I was a camp director here in the 90s, the thought of Philmont staff cutting hundreds of trees a day would have appalled me. But I’ve grown,” he said.
For years the idea of untouched wilderness reigned supreme, Hughes said. The idea of logging or cutting wasn’t compatible with the Boy Scouts image. But fuel reduction and thinning have ecological benefits.
Driving through the backcountry in a straw cowboy hat and burly beard, Lee sings along to Waylon Jennings.
He’s looking to find an example of a well-managed ponderosa stand, or a “desired future condition.”
Each time he finds one that might be promising, we hop out of the car and start walking around. He notes that if you look in this specific area, you’ll see what he’s talking about. But don’t look too far or too wide, because the thinned forest starts to quickly increase in density.
“The fact that it’s hard to find a good example is telling” he said.
A few days later, the forestry crews have moved to Cimarroncito for the day. They’re clearing campsites that hadn’t been used this season. In the spring, the entire conservation department gathered at Cito for all-cons, and worked on cutting trees in the prescription around the campsites. Once the trees were cut in the spring, they were left for another crew to clean up.
In methodical fashion the forestry crews haul bucked logs and slash, the branches and limbs cut from the trees once they’re felled, dumping the logs in a nearby ravine and turning the slash into gumdrop like piles.
Driving and hiking around Philmont, you see the piles everywhere. Some, freshly made, are a deep green while others, the ones made a season or two ago, are a deep reddish brown. The piles will dry out for a few years, and then crews will come through in the winter and, under careful supervision, set them on fire.
Burn days can only happen with specific weather conditions. The crews need at least 4 inches of snow on the ground, low wind and low temperatures.
“It’s a fine line of having enough snow to burn, but not too much snow to get to these remote sites,” Hughes said.
Crews burn the piles using a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel and after the piles are nothing but embers, they continue to monitor them for over a month, making sure they don’t throw embers and start spot fires.
“It’s a way to eliminate fuels that’s reliable and safe,” he said.
Since the Ute Park fire, Philmont has constructed about 4,000 slash piles, including nearly 1,000 built by scouts this summer, the first summer they offered slash pile building as a camper conservation project. Of the 4,000, about half of them have been burned, leaving about 2,000 unburned slash piles dotting the landscape.
This winter, Hughes is hoping to have the first prescribed burn at Philmont. It’s what he describes as a “hearts and minds burn,” a small simple burn to show that it can be executed safely. Three locations were chosen, Abreu, the north slope of Tooth Ridge, and a site in the demonstration forest by the Cinarroncito Reservoir.
Hughes was surprised that there wasn’t more pushback against the idea of essentially lighting Philmont on fire. But as the nation has seen the intensity and destruction of American wildfires increase over the last decade, he thinks that more people are starting to understand that there needs to be a new approach to management.
“I think people get it,” he said.
The problem at Philmont is the scale.
“We don’t want to waste time doing work that isn’t gonna move the needle,” Hughes said. “Nothing we can do by hand is on the scale we need.”
Philmont seasonal staff can treat an acre in about two to three days. Hughes says that to reach the scale of forest management that Philmont needs, they need to be treating multiple acres a day. They could pay someone to do the work. It costs about $1,500 for someone to treat an acre, but they could in turn sell the timber to a sawmill for about $1,200 an acre, costing the ranch a total of just a few hundred dollars per acre.
“I’m fine paying to get our management done,” said Hughes, because they can use the ongoing programming to pay for the management. “As long as we have space to do program, we can keep doing management.”
“There’s a saying around here,” said Hughes, “‘Everything is program,’ and it is if you do it right.”
No matter the approach that Philmont takes to forest management, paying a third party to come and thin the woods, using seasonal staff to do the job, or setting a controlled burn, Philmont must use that as a teaching opportunity.
“Hopefully the impact we have here will spread out across the nation as a ripple effect,” said Hughes
He hopes that what they can teach kids at Philmont, can be brought back to council camps and local areas around the country, and will get people talking and thinking about forest management.
Fifty-two stream crossings. That seems to be the accepted number of stream crossings between Black Mountain and Miner’s Park on the North Fork Urraca trail. It’s a beautiful trail, deep in a forested canyon along a beautiful stream.
But the rugged terrain in the canyon presents two major problems. First, it’s incredibly hard to get crews in there to effectively thin the forest and clear some of the underbrush, and second if a fire were to reach that area those same limitations would prevent effective fighting of the blaze.
“If lightning strikes in that Black Mountain North Fork area, we may be hosed,” said Hughes.
But the danger doesn’t stop at the potential destruction of backcountry camps. The North Fork Urraca drains into the Philmont Reservoir, tucked up behind the Stockade beneath Tooth Ridge.
The Philmont reservoir is the main water source for the ranch. If it were to get contaminated it wouldn’t just mean no program, it would mean no one could use the ranch until an alternative water source was arranged.
Much of what Hughes has focused on is to prevent the contamination of that reservoir. If they can stop the fire from cresting that ridge, on either side, they have a chance at saving the water supply.
There is no single solution, and no single problem. A fire on the ranch, depending on when and where it strikes, could have any number of consequences.
“I try to leave value judgment out of it,” said Hughes. “People say ‘Oh 27,000 acres were destroyed,’ it wasn’t destroyed. Those acres are still there, they just look different” he said.
Fire can be deadly. It can destroy buildings, water supplies, campsites and other infrastructure. It can make parts of the ranch inoperable. It can also spark new life and heal unhealthy forests.
After the Ute Park fire there was a lot of talk about “saving Philmont,” said Ann Merry, a former forestry foreman with 11 seasons under her belt.
“But we all know that there is no saving Philmont,” she said.
Regardless, there’s still work to be done.
“I’m not ready to give up yet,” says Hughes. “With right comes responsibility and all that.”
Learn More About the Burn:
This documentary tells the tale of the 2018 Ute Park fire and the efforts that have been made since then to prepare Philmont for future wildfires.