Cotton from trees increasing fire danger

Posted at: 06/17/2013 5:22 PM
By: Stuart Dyson, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Fire danger is extreme in the riverside forest along the banks of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and getting worse every day, thanks to something the trees themselves are doing.

The problem is the cotton in the cottonwood trees. An old fire chief called the stuff “nature’s napalm”. Right now it’s blowing through the air in the middle Rio Grande valley and pretty soon it will cover the ground in the bosque forest like a blanket.

The female cottonwood produces the cotton. It helps to disperse the seeds through the air. It’s good for making new cottonwoods, but it increases the fire danger when it covers the fine fuels on the forest floor, dead grass, leaves and tree limbs.

“It burns like gasoline,” said Commander Tanya Lattin of the Corrales Fire Department. “It’s really quick. It takes off if gets heat or a spark. It adds to the fuel mixture and it’s a fine, flashy fuel that gets the heat going that ignites the stuff below.”

That cotton is one reason why the bosque is completely closed in Corrales. The village fire department has just eight paid firefighters, the rest are volunteers. Then there’s another kind of volunteer doing a crucial job in the bosque.

“We do have a specialized group of trained people,” said Mayor Phil Gasteyer. “It’s our Bosque Watch Patrol that goes in there, helps the professional staff with their cell phones. They’re our eyes and ears in the bosque.”