LINCOLN COUNTY, N.M. (KRQE) – Two fires caused by lightning strikes in the Lincoln National Forest have proven to be beneficial to the forest’s health, according to Brad Johnson, deputy fire staff officer with the Forest Service.

Johnson said both the Apple Tree Fire, and the West Mountain Fire, have helped clear fuels, such as dead and down trees, from the forest floor. “When this fires moving through, it’s not your rampaging fire taking out, you know, tons of trees at that really accelerated rate. This fire is just creeping along the forest floor and reducing all the vegetation to the state that is a healthy ecosystem,” Johnson explained.

Apple Tree Fire in the Lincoln National Forest. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service – Lincoln National Forest )

The West Mountain Fire started on Aug. 3 and as of Thursday, Aug. 10, the fire was reported at 212 acres in size. The Apple Tree Fire started on July 18 and was contained on Thursday. The final acreage of the Apple Tree Fire was 365 acres.

The fuels in the forest have built up as a result of fire suppression efforts by excluding fire from the forest’s natural cycle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. By using fires like the Apple Tree and West Mountain fires, or prescribed burns, forest staff are helping address what Johnson calls a “fire debt.”

“There needs to be more fire on the landscape due to us containing fires for so long,” Johnson said. Clearing fuels in the forest not only benefits the forest directly, but also some ranchers, and animal hunters, according to Johnson. “It does open up for the animals to be able to forage. It also opens up spring boxes in other places that they’ve never seen water run for about 80 years before.”

The West Mountain Fire started on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in the Smokey Bear Ranger District of the Lincoln National Forest. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service – Lincoln National Forest via Facebook)

Despite the fires being caused randomly by lightning, Johnson said the West Mountain Fire actually occurred in a place where forest staff were looking to burn fuels. As for the Apple Tree Fire, while there was no prior plan to start a burn in that area, however, Johnson said staff realized the fire could be beneficial and they seized the opportunity. “It (West Mountain Fire) is in a potential area that we wanted to do a prescribed burn, but we just really never had the window, resource availability or opportunities. The stars aligned when you look at these fires,” Johnson explained.

Johnson said forest staff considers many factors when deciding whether they are going to let a naturally occurring fire burn. “Where we have the right conditions, at the right time of year, with the right resources needed, with the right conversations with external partners including the ranchers in the area, we have the right resources on scene, those types of things,” Johnson added. Other main things staff consider are the values at risk, such as homes, buildings, weather, viewsheds, archeological sites, and more.

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Forest crews utilize a confine and contain strategy and use natural barriers such as roads to guide the fire in the areas they want. Crews are monitoring these types of fires as they burn and Johnson added that they receive location-specific updates from the National Weather Service in El Paso to guide decision-making.

If a fire, whether it’s naturally caused or not, poses a threat, Johnson said crews take aggressive action to immediately suppress it.