Kirtland initiates wildfire prevention mission

Kevin Pacheco, fire operations technician, uses a bulldozer to masticate overgrowth in the forest area of Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., April 16, 2019. Kirtland is conducting a multi-step wildfire prevention project spanning across 16,000 acres of its eastern-most remote forest area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

Kirtland Air Force Base is one month in to a multi-step wildfire prevention project spanning across 16,000 acres of its eastern-most remote forest area.

This prevention project, led by the Air Force Civil Engineering Center and the Fuel Management Program, started approximately one year after the PJ Fire effected about 100 acres on Kirtland. While the wildland fire prevention efforts where already being developed, the PJ fire highlighted the necessity of short- and long-term prevention efforts. The primary goals of the wildfire prevention project is to impede any wildfires from leaving the boundaries of the installation.

“We are creating a fuel break,” said Greg Valdez, Kirtland’s assistant wildland fire module leader. “This is the first project we are initiating so if there is a catastrophic wildfire, the intent [of the fuel break] is to slow it down.”

A fuel break is a gap in vegetation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a wildfire.

“Right now we are currently going 150 feet off the road in both directions,” said Valdez.

The 300 foot fuel breaks contains grass, shrubs and trees such as piñon, juniper woodlands and ponderosa pines.

“Fire is pretty simple,” said Valdez. “You take fuel, oxygen or heat away from it, you put the fire out. So one of those elements is fuel and we are basically removing fuel to slow a fire down.”

The 150 foot gap on both sides of the access roads contains fuel for wildfire on either side. That space gives firefighters some room to work with and a better chance of controlling the wildfire.

“The fuel breaks allow crews to come in and establish or improve the line for holding purposes,” said Valdez. “[Keeping the fire] contained within a specific area allows slurry or retardant bombers to come in and put slurry on the ground to hopefully slow the fire down.”

The process of creating a fuel break is done mostly by skid-steer loaders with a special attachment that eats away at vegetation by breaking down the larger trees into smaller wood chips.

“There’s a couple of different methods of what we call thinning or mastication,” said Valdez. “[For] the machines, it’s called mastication because the machinery does the work that people usually do with chainsaws. It’s a lot faster, it’s a lot more efficient and it saves money in the long run. The machines basically shred the trees into small particles and we go back later and burn the residual that is left after the mastication process.”

According to Robert Morales, Kirtland’s wildland fire module leader, with the combination of the skid-steer loaders and chainsaws masticating the fuel break area, his crew is able to make steady progress.

“We are hoping to treat two, maybe three acres a day,” said Morales. “But you know there are a lot of variables. We have bad weather days, so we do the best we can with the time we have.”

The work being put in towards wildfire prevention is combined with efforts from the Forest Service and the Isleta Pueblo.

“We are mirroring steps that the Forest Service has taken to create a fuel break,” said Valdez. “The Isleta Pueblo has also done similar work on the southern portion of the installation.”

Overall progress that is made each day goes towards protecting people and their homes from potential wildfires. With a civilian population of 35,000 living just east of the treatment areas, prevention is imperative
“We are trying to prevent a wildfire coming from off of the base onto private property or the forest service’s property.”

Even though there are many people in the area, there are limited access roads to treatment areas which can be a hindrance to progress.

“The roads are very rough,” said Morales. “We only have one entry point and that’s coming in through east side through Mars Court [Trailhead] and the two roads from the west side [of the mountain] are very rough. We would just beat up our equipment and our trucks if we came in that way.”
With the restrictions on how the treatment area can be accessed by road, weather continues to dictate when work can be done.

“Because we had so much snow, we haven’t been able to get in here till the end of March,” said Morales. “We tried to get in here but the snow banks were about three feet high and we couldn’t even break through on our UTVs. [After] ten days, it went from having all of this snow to dry which is how quickly it can change here. So this year I figure fire season will be moderate and from June until whenever the monsoon [season] starts, we will be back into high to very high fire danger.”

Even though challenges have already arisen in this wildfire prevention process, the attitude among the crew remains resilient.

“There is plenty of work up here and it’s going to take time,” said Valdez. “You have to start somewhere and we are starting and we will eventually get it done. I just think it’s good that the Air Force is moving forward with doing this ecosystem restoration and wildlife restoration and fuels reductions.”