Philmont continues to navigate fire safety as season begins as scheduled

Photo by Michael Roytek

Programs at Philmont Scout Ranch and the Philmont Training Center are moving forward this summer after overcoming recent challenges presented by nearby fires. The Cooks Peak fire, which crossed Philmont’s southern border at the end of April, is 97% contained and had minimal effects on Philmont programs. The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires were contained 16 miles southwest of Philmont’s border in early May.  

An increased knowledge of wildfire and its effects, along with work from new fuel-reduction projects by Philmont staff and visitors, have combined to mitigate the effects of the current fires and allowed Philmont to, for the most part, operate normally as the summer season kicks off. The success is due in large part to the close collaboration between the Philmont management team and firefighting incident management teams from across the country.

Lee Hughes, Philmont’s director of conservation, says the impact of the ranch’s efforts since the 2018 Ute Park fire have created a safer environment this time around.

“We have thinned 980 acres of forest in the south country and Baldy Skyline to reduce damage from wildfires by limiting the possibility of crown fires,” Hughes says. “We will continue to aggressively thin ponderosa pine forests, where the cumulative effects of decades of fire suppression have resulted in forests that are too crowded and ripe for destructive fire behavior.” 

Philmont Director of Conservation Lee Hughes operates a chainsaw while training staff in June. Photo by Marielle Scott / Philmont Scout Ranch

Removing the fuel

Wildfire behavior is dictated by several factors, such as wind and relative humidity, but available fuel — anything that burns easily — is especially critical. In an unmanaged, overcrowded forest, a fire can easily climb into the canopy of the trees and spread rapidly from tree to tree.

Projects that thin the forests at Philmont have created much-needed space between the trees while also removing smaller trees that can serve as a “ladder,” allowing the fire to climb into the canopy.

“This minimizes the chance for crown fires and rapid spread, while at the same time increased sunlight on the forest floor encourages the growth of grasses, which carry the fire at a much lower intensity,” says Hughes.

All those conservation projects by Philmont participants over the last few years are now paying off. Participants have been gathering materials that could serve as fuel for a wildfire and piling them up for controlled burns, which safely happen during snow events in the winter.

“The beauty of it all is that Scouts from all over the country learn about fire ecology and mitigation work here that they can take back home and begin the process there as well,” Hughes says.

Money from donors around the world helped quadruple the size of Philmont’s forestry crew so they could lead Scouts in logging more than 50,000 volunteer hours in fuel reduction work in the backcountry.

Click here to learn more about the Philmont Fire Recovery and Mitigation Fund.

Philmont Staff gather around a map to survey a fire break southwest of Philmont property in May. Photo by Josh Zitko / Philmont Scout Ranch

From participant to staffer to firefighter

One of the volunteer firefighters at Philmont is Ben Harper, a former participant whose current position is Philmont conservation field manager.

“I’m doing the same exact thing as the hundreds of thousands of other professional and volunteer firefighters and EMTs all over the world: I’m helping to protect my community,” Harper says. “We do our best to contain these fires, so they don’t damage our neighbors’ homes or livelihoods.”

Harper knows from experience that it doesn’t hurt to get lucky in this line of work. While working on the Cooks Peak fire, unexpected snowfall helped subdue further growth.

“We were going into it expecting a lot more damage than ended up occurring,” he says. “What matters is that humans, despite all of their hard work and preparation, didn’t stop that fire on that day. It hung itself up and we got to work containing it the next day.”

As Philmont’s field manager, he says he knows there’s no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to fire mitigation. These projects take years to complete.

“This work is a marathon,” Harper says. “What motivates me is seeing the before and after. The trails, the fuel breaks, burn units, streams and campsites. … All of those before-and-afters that make you realize the magnitude of what you and your team have just done.”

Philmont Field Manager Ben Harper works on constructing a fire break during the Cooks Peak Fire in April on the south side of Urraca Mesa. Photo by Jack Rodgers / Philmont Scout Ranch

You can still visit this summer

There are still spots available to trek at Philmont in 2023 and be part of a conservation project that reduces the risk of fire. As for this summer, there are openings for courses at Philmont Training Center, which offers classes on outdoor ethics, leadership skills and the brilliantly named C.O.F.F.F.E.E. and T.E.A. — Challenging Outdoor Fun-Filled Family-Engaged Experiences and Team Enhancing Activities — which teaches how group learning can help you have fun with Scouts and Scout families.

The Amateur Radio and Scouting course will tell you everything you need to know about running an active radio Scout program in your council, district or unit. Scouting Relationships 101 will present the fundamentals of relationships and explore the many components of connections throughout Scouting.

PTC also provides some programming for spouses and families of attendees.

At Philmont’s Family Adventure Camp, participants can go horseback riding or hiking, tackle a COPE course and much, much more. And you don’t have to “rough it,” as the family program offers wall tents, deluxe luxury tents or hotel-style rooms to choose from.

Special thanks to Philmont marketing manager Jack Rodgers, whose reporting provided much of the information in this story.

Family Adventure Camp offers activities for family members of all ages. Photo by Gabriel Jackson
About Aaron Derr 224 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.