On Monday June 4th, 2012 at 3:00 PM, lightning sparked a fire in the White Mountain Wilderness near Ruidoso, New Mexico. Before it was contained, the Little Bear fire devastated over 44,000 acres of forest, grassland and homes, fueled by a thick understory of grasses and timber, both dry and brittle from prolonged drought in the area. After the smoke cleared and the area residents started to pick up the pieces of so much loss of life and property, more dangers loomed right around the corner. In a forested and mountainous area like this one, the fire damage to the plant life leaves the top soil on the steep mountainsides bare and unprotected from the erosive forces of rain and running water. As is often the case, fires come at the end of the driest part of the year only to be followed by the wet or monsoon season (usually beginning on July 4th) characterized by regular, sometimes daily, sudden heavy rain showers. When the rains do arrive, the surge of water, instead of restoring the scorched landscape, leads to more destruction in the form of mudslides and even more life threatening flash flooding across watersheds already choked with ash, charred timber and other fire rubble. When I was enlisted by two property owners in the aftermath of the fire to rehabilitate the land surrounding their home using permaculture principles, the goals were clear. In the short term, slow the water down to let it soak in and regrow the understory. In the long term, use a palette of edible annual and perennial plants to replace what was previously native pine with a mix of surviving pine and self-sustaining food forest that would be more food productive and resistant to future fire events.
Phase I: Observation
While the family home on the property was saved from the burn, several neighboring houses as well as the majority of the forest around the home were destroyed or thinned dramatically by the fast moving and very high heat fire that charged through the valley. The fire was only stopped by a combination of heroic effort on the part of property owners and a last minute change in wind direction that turned the fire.
I arrived early the following summer after a relatively dry fall and a low snowfall winter. From the annual precipitation data and conversation with the property owners, we could be relatively certain that rains coming in July could be relied upon to help establish any grasses or larger plants that we put in earlier in the summer. From my first walk around the property after the fire, I could see that the understory, largely destroyed by the fire, had made little to no recovery in the months since the fire. The property owners paid a local tree removal service to cut down most of the dead or dying trees and trim some of them down for firewood, although the majority of the charred, felled trees were left on the hillside.
The current drainage from the upper portion of the property ran into the small low spot shown above. Judging by the types of grasses and damp anaerobic mud in the depression/gully, it seems that even throughout the drought, this area maintains at least a small amount of available moisture. In the bottom right hand corner of the photo, you can also see that what is left of the charred, rocky topsoil has been covered with the remnants of the pine needles that fell from trees that didn’t burn in the fire, but were killed by the heat to die later in the year. On the creek bank below the house, possible erosion and flash flooding from upstream combined with the loss of stabilizing vegetation on this property increase the risk of bank erosion or complete wash out.
After my initial walk around the property, it was apparent that there is the potential for year round fire resistant ground cover in addition to ample food production and some additional ponds and water elements fed by collection on the uphill portion of the property. The majority of the slopes on the property are North facing, so any efforts to extend growing seasons into the snowy winter here will involve excellent planning, possible earth/water works or planting up against the house. Also, there are visible water flows through the front and side yards of the house despite their relatively flattened appearance. The primary goals will still be to slow the water and soak it down into the soil, increase food production, and increase the stability and fire resistance of the area with improved soil, plants and water holding capacity.
Next Post: Water Levels, Perennials and Tractors, Oh My!
Talk with the family to find out their habits and tastes to establish our plant palette and other resources at our disposal.