the Conservancy’s threat abatement specialist in Honduras
by Christiana Ferris
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It’s a dry, sunny November day with almost no breeze in the rolling grasslands of the Conservancy’s 10,000-acre Rancho Los Fresnos in the Sonoran Desert.
Hot-shot bomberos from Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR)—fire chiefs from 11 different states, all bosses in their own right—take orders from the one man designated as that day’s prescribed burn chief, Baruk Maldonado, director of local partner Biodiversidad y Desarrollo Armónico (BIDA). It’s a job that will rotate over the course of the 10-day project. It’s not easy for a general to play the role of foot soldier. But when dealing with fire, heeding commands can mean the difference between survival and disaster for the entire team.
The participants are recent graduates of Mexico’s Prescribed Burn Academy, a joint project started five years ago between The Nature Conservancy and CONAFOR to train the agency's staff and other partners as the country’s foremost experts in fire as a conservation tool.
“Our challenge is finding young leaders to be tomorrow's fire experts,” says Alfredo Nolasco, manager of CONAFOR's forest fire protection division, “and creating a new generation of fire managers.”
But the academy is not just benefitting conservation efforts in Mexico. Among the trainees is Faustino Osavas, threat abatement specialist for the Conservancy’s work in Honduras.
“To me,” Osavas says, “this is a great opportunity to better understand that fire management is a universal issue. Mexico has taken a great step. Now state fire bosses think and apply ecological principles to fire management.”
Grasslands, for example, have adapted to depend on periodic fires to clear out woody shrubs that compete with native grasses and encourage their regeneration.
“We need a really hot fire to kill the mesquite,” Maldonado says before the burn begins, “but not so hot that we sterilize the soil. It’s a balancing act.”
Why kill mesquite?
“Left unchecked, mesquite can overtake the increasingly rare grasslands, a habitat that is highly under-protected globally and particularly important in the Mexican desert.”
Migrating birds like the bald eagle, yellow-billed cuckoo and willow flycatcher stop over or nest here, and grassland sparrows, which are in rapid decline, too, flit among these rolling plains thanks to the abundant insects present. Every acre saved makes a difference for the prairie dogs, Huachuca tiger salamanders and up to 400 bird species and 180 butterfly species that call the area home.
Brigade members in the ignition crew wield gas-powered drip torches, while liquidation crew members carry 40-pound backpacks of water. Others measure temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction every half-hour to make sure that the window of opportunity remains open. Everything has to be just right or the burn will have to wait or be called off.
The team burns a small test parcel on the easiest part of the property where the terrain slopes more gently and there is less fuel. They lay control lines and then burn the gaps in between.
Bright orange flames shimmy in broad daylight and crackle when they hit larger shrubs. The intense heat and black smoke singe the nostrils. After about an hour, an ebony carpet covering the rocky ground and the occasional tiny wisp of smoke rising from the earth are the only remnants of the morning’s work.
The goal is to burn from 12 to 75 acres each day, with the level of difficulty increasing as the brigades become accustomed to local conditions. By day 10, crews will have burned nearly 900 acres on the ranch.
“Thankfully, the grasslands here are in good condition,” adds Gabriel Valencia, also of BIDA. “Unlike neighboring ranches, Los Fresnos does not graze cattle or raise agricultural crops, and activities like prescribed fire also help preserve these grasslands.”
The difference is visible. The mesquite cover is denser on nearby properties, with grasses completely choked out in some arroyos outside Los Fresnos.
“Our goal,” Valencia says, “is to use a recently established ranchers’ network to encourage neighbors to adopt fire management, invasive species control and other land stewardship practices that will renew and preserve the region’s grasslands.”
At the conclusion of the project, academy graduates not only have helped the Conservancy’s habitat restoration efforts, they also have garnered camaraderie and the expertise necessary to train the next generation of CONAFOR fire leaders.
The Conservancy’s Osavas says, “Being on a ten-day burn with fire management professionals from CONAFOR in Mexico allowed me to share some of my knowledge and learn from them as well. I’ll pass on this knowledge to other fire managers in Central America."