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  • Jarod Contreras

Ready. Set. Go.

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

Cooks Peak Fire Reinforces the Importance of Land Management

An air attack helicopter approaches Lake Miami to collect water to drop on the Cooks Peak Fire as the fire approached Abreu on April 24, 2022. Photo By Jack Rodgers.

August 1, 2022 — With 140,000 acres of southwestern wilderness under the Ranch’s watch, fire and Philmont are inextricably linked. These 140,000 acres have seen heavy human influence for more than 150 years, leaving forests packed too tightly with trees and a less than healthy ecosystem.

A matchbox that went up in flames in 2002 with the Ponil Complex Fire, in 2018 with the Ute Park Fire, and, most recently, just this past spring with the Cooks Peak Fire.

Wildfire in the American west is a common concern, but when the livelihood of many and the capacity to change lives depends on the health of these 140,000 acres, it becomes vital.

Field manager, Ben Harper, poses for a portrait on July 13,2022. Harper has worked at Philmont for 12 seasons and counting. Photo by Marielle Scott.

Philmont prepares for Cooks Peak Fire

In recent years, Philmont has seen fire wreak havoc on summer seasons and the health of our forests. This year, it seemed like it would happen all over again. In the late afternoon of April 17, 2022, a fire stood up north of Ocate, New Mexico. It became known as the Cooks Peak Fire, and over the next few days, strong winds pushed it forcefully to the north.

That week, Philmont Fire Department Chief James Sanchez and captain Jeremy Gruver were invited to a meeting where the Incident Management team responding to the fire illustrated what the fire was predicted to do. The consensus: it was going to hit Philmont.

During the truck ride back to the Ranch, Sanchez said he began to call everyone in the fire department.

“We need you in at 6 a.m. tomorrow ready to go,” Sanchez said.

He said the prediction made the immediacy of the fire clear and that it, “definitely put a worry in everybody.”

Philmont firefighters knew the stakes, and the next day, April 22, Sanchez said everyone was there early. Even department retirees from the community came out to help.

“They knew it was important for them to be out there and do what they could,” Sanchez said.

That day, the team began to do a value assessment, where they decided which structures and resources were most important. The Ranch’s firefighters started strengthening Philmont’s road system to be a more effective firebreak to protect vital resources and hopefully prevent the fire from crossing too much into Philmont.

Philmont staff members survey a map of the terrain just south of Philmont's border as the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fires approach on May 13, 2022. Philmont Conservation Department members were tasked with developing a fuel break and machine line. Photo by Josh Zitko.

Cooks Peak Fire burns 3,000 acres at Philmont

However, the winds were unusual that weekend. Sanchez said typically winds that strong are accompanied by rain. But not that weekend. That weekend, the winds pushed hard with a fire fueled by a very dry, very hot landscape. And the fire came to Philmont.

Sanchez said he was surprised with how quickly the fire crested the ridge above Rayado. Soon, it began to bear down hard on the valley below Urraca.

“As soon as it crossed Rayado Road and started going up Toothache hill, up to Urraca,” Sanchez said this was the Ranch’s trigger point, “Philmont was evacuated.”

The Ranch evacuated on April 22. The fire moved across the ridge and down into the valley so quickly that, Sanchez said, no one knew Zastrow’s cabin burned until the next day. Despite the intensity of the burn, the teams on site continued to build firebreak lines and protect what structures they could.

The Ranching and Farm and Roads departments had concerns of their own: livestock. David Kenneke, Philmont’s Director of Ranching, said he remembers long days and nights that weekend hauling and driving cattle, horses and burros north, away from the fire.

The night of the evacuation, Kenneke said he and a handful of fellow employees from the Ranching, Farm and Roads, and Facilities Departments stayed behind to monitor the conditions of the fire. Kenneke described being ready to cut fence line in the bison pasture if the fire made it that far, so the bison herd could run for their own safety.

“I remember being able to look into the sun and it did not hurt my eyes. It was just a little orange dot,” Kenneke said.

The smoke in the air and the fire’s aggressiveness made for a weekend where many felt that Philmont was in deep trouble. They worried Cooks Peak may become another Ute Park and the Ranch would have to grapple with the consequences of another canceled summer.

However, sometimes life jumps directions on a dime. That weekend some moisture came, the winds changed and the response teams continued to work. Over the next few days, the conditions of the fire radically shifted in Philmont and the firefighters’ favor. It ceased its relentless push north. It provided the teams with opportunities to protect resources, like Philmont staff wrapping the Carson Meadows cabin in fire retardant sheets made from aluminum and fiberglass.

The fire did not die down immediately, and when it was all said and done it burned 3,084 acres of Philmont’s South Country. On May 14, the New Mexico Forestry Division determined the fire to be 100% contained.

For both Sanchez and Kenneke, one of the most memorable aspects of their experience with the Cooks Peak Fire is how proud they are of the work of their teams.

“Whatever they had to do, they put it aside to help protect this ranch,” Sanchez said.

Philmont leads the way for incident command partnerships

Beyond the personnel directly on the fire, putting everything aside to do their part was a common theme for staff across the Ranch. The Philmont Training Center hosted a large-scale spike camp that housed several important incident command personnel responsible for coordinating the response to the fire. Wildland fire trucks, logistical tents and operations trailers lined the parking lots of the PTC.

Full-time and seasonal staff on-site volunteered to support the fire teams through serving meals, maintaining facilities and outfitting classrooms to serve the mission.

Philmont’s IT Manager Clinton Pedigo described the importance of many hands making light work.

“They were here to save the Ranch. What better way to give back than to volunteer your time,” Pedigo said.

The revolving incident command members were thankful for Philmont’s efforts.

“Not only was Philmont able to provide and go above and beyond for us and the resources on this fire, the people were genuine, real and cared about us, making sure that we had what we needed. Anything they could do to help us, they would do,” said Chuck Fox, who ran operations and then took over as Incident Commander as the fire wound down.

The sun rises over the Cooks Peak burn scar on July 14, 2022. Photo by Marielle Scott.

Philmont is vital to northeast New Mexico

After Cooks Peak Fire, the burning of yet more thousands of acres and the loss of a cabin, the protection of this ranch was reinforced for many.

“What has happened with these fires is traumatic, but the silver lining is that it opened people’s eyes that we need to be more aggressive with our land management,” Kenneke said.

Securing Philmont’s safety for generations to come is important for reasons far deeper than changing the lives of Scouts each summer.

Kenneke noted, “much of the culture of Colfax County is interconnected with Philmont.” If Philmont were to go, Colfax County would bleed.

“A lot of people count on the land here to make a living, and if the land all goes, people suffer,” Ben Harper, field manager for the Conservation Department, said.

Working to continue to improve the health of Philmont’s lands is a ranch-wide goal: from Kenneke in ranching, to Harper in conservation, to Sanchez in the fire department.

Improving evacuation plans

Sanchez reinforced the importance of access, that the fire department needs to be able to reach the fire. Which means, as Kenneke explained, Philmont’s goal to become a “leader in the education of land managers” requires continuing to improve the health of our forests, the quality of our roads and the conservation of water. Sanchez said that the South Country is their “area of concern … not just this year but every year”. As such, evacuation is their number one priority.

“We won’t worry about the fire until we get everybody out,” Sanchez said.

As drought conditions spurred extreme fire danger into the beginning of the summer season, Philmont established Divide Trail Camp as a point of communication for the South Country. Rangers staff the camp 24/7 to expedite spreading an evacuation message to the remote trail camps in the area.

Associate Director of Conservation of OATC, Benjamin Skidmore, fells a snag burned during the 2018 Ute Park Fire at Harlan on July 12, 2022. Snags are dead trees and pose a danger when left standing near trails or campsites due to the possibility of falling. Photo by Marielle Scott.

Improving the health of Philmont Forests

Since the 2018 Ute Park Fire, Philmont has increased its focus on forest fuel reduction, thinning the forests to form a healthier ecosystem. This focus will continue. During the fire, creating space between fuels was a key tactic. Kodee Summers, a seasonal staff member in the Conservation Department, worked on creating fuel breaks during the Cooks Peak Fire. “I think the most important thing was the land that we were on,” Summers said. Summers’ goal is to work as a wildland firefighter next summer, she said that experience gave her a wonderful introduction to the field.

As Kenneke explained, a key benefit of thinning, beyond better fire management, is that it provides better water management. Thinning allows water to hit the ground, as opposed to being suspended in canopies, thus allowing grasses to grow. These grasses protect against erosion and slow water down for absorption. Additionally, these grasses serve as feed for wild and domesticated animals.

“Other than people, water is our most precious resource,” Kenneke said.

Going forward, Philmont hopes to increase its focus on prescribed burns, according to Conservation Director Lee Hughes. Prescribed burns are important for forest management because they provide the same benefit that human-performed thinning does, allowing the forest to be adequately spaced, allowing for adequate ground growth diversity and nutrient cycling, however they are able to execute on a much larger scale than human-performed thinning.

“I envision a complex of burn units across the Ranch, with a few burned each year,” Hughes said.“More preparation is needed to get to this stage, and we’ll be prioritizing that work.” A goal for the Ranch, according to Hughes, is to increase opportunities for training and certifications so that staff can continue to be an asset to northeastern New Mexico.

In the near future, Hughes explained that Philmont has “contracted a burn boss to write a plan and execute burn units at Demo Forest, near Abreu turnaround and on north Tooth Ridge once some additional work is done there. We have identified other sites to add to the list, including the Beaubien Road shaded fuel break and a potential site near Lower Bonito canyon.”

All this work will play a vital role in continuing to safeguard Philmont’s future. Kenneke pointed out that “every animal alters the environment.” When ants burrow a thousand tunnels to form an ant hill, they are altering their environment.

“Man is no different,” Kenneke said.

Going forward, Kenneke reinforced that, “what we need to do is be responsible in our altering.”

Many at Philmont count their lucky stars that the Cooks Peak Fire wasn’t more devastating. However, it has left an impact. It served as a potent, timely reminder that Philmont has work to do, that we’ve done good work already, but that we still have work to do.

“The golden rule is that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you,” Kenneke said.

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