“Controlled-burn is a dirty word around here.” This is what we heard from Joseph Weathers, the owner of the wool mill we had toured in Mora. He walked us through the process of skirting the wool by hand before feeding it through half a dozen different machines. Cleaning the wool, aligning it, spooling it, Joseph Weathers was intimately aware of how his mill operated. He was the kind of boss that routinely did the worst parts of the job himself. Aside from being a humble and charismatic host, he showed himself to be ingrained tightly with his local community; so much so that when evacuation orders were given for a controlled burn, he stayed behind.

He impressed us, and his condemnation of controlled burns carried weight. With our professor’s lectures and assigned readings about forest fires, I had slipped easily and firmly into the camp of viewing controlled burns as a simple good.

Northern New Mexico landscape showing foreground with healthy charred tree, middle ground with controlled burn, background with remains of a crown fire.

But Joseph Weathers’ account of fearing the destruction of his community because of a controlled burn that had gotten out of hand – that shook my beliefs. Our next stop the same day would grant a much needed perspective from the forest guild, whose director we would be meeting at the location of a forest that they had burned.

We walked through the post-burn land trust with Sam Berry, an overseer of controlled burns in New Mexico. Controlled burns let the fuel-overburdened forests burn off without causing a crown fire that could destroy the entire forest. A crown fire could leave a forest as nothing but a barren hill of charred sticks. In comparison, this post burn area was still clearly a woods, though it was unlike any I had ever seen. The trees were far enough apart from each other that I could easily see clear through them and to the mountains beyond. Some trees were charred on one side, and nearly all were bare of branches on the lower half of their trunks. There was little of the dense moss I had grown used to seeing on trees, though green lichen grew over the numerous volcanic rocks peppering the ground. 

It was quiet, and to my New York sensibilities of what a forest was meant to be, it felt unnatural and latently terrifying. It was difficult for me to believe that this change was beneficial. 

We mentioned Joseph Weathers’ take on controlled burns to Sam Berry. He responded with empathy and gravity, telling us that he had grown up with a fear that his home in California could be destroyed by a forest fire. That fear was a big part of why he worked on controlled burns, to keep catastrophic fires from happening in the future.

I’ve come back around to supporting controlled burns, but traveling through New Mexico has given me a more nuanced perspective on the issue. I have seen the ponderosa pines and aspen groves that rely on fire as part of their life cycles. I have met with people who fear controlled burns, and those who start them. On a local level, these aren’t just abstract political problems, but practical ones. It is frightening to think that human intervention in nature is now necessary, especially considering our troubling track record so far. But I do believe that there is a possibility for controlled-burns to save lives and stabilize our forests. But we need to be careful. Sam Berry told us that every error in controlled burns has been avoidable. If controlled burns are handled with absolute care, I believe they will get a better reputation over time. One day, I hope that no one feels the need to think of controlled-burn as a dirty word.