East mountain fire meeting: Wetter spring, interagency cooperation

An annual fire preparedness meeting brought together top firefighters to share and learn from each other ahead of fire season—and the region could be seeing a wetter spring and summer than last year.

Representatives attended from the U.S. Forest Service, Cibola National Forest, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Red Cross, New Mexico State Forestry, Bernalillo County, Valencia County, Torrance County, Santa Fe County, Kirkland Air Force Base, Isleta Pueblo, Mountainair, Moriarty, Corona, Estancia, Claunch-Pinto Soil and Water Conservation District and Deer Canyon Preserve.

Looking back at the last fire season in the Mountainair District, Anthony Martinez from the Forest Service said fire indices were “sky high” and although the number of fires usually average 40 to 50, they remained below 10 as a result of few lightning strikes and by closing the forests early.

A meteorologist from the National Weather Service, Andrew Church, addressing weather said, due to evaporation of soil moisture from winds combined with lack of precipitation, last year’s dryness was historic. “We were absolutely bone dry,” he said.

Church said there was a 90 percent chance of an El Niño this winter, yet it didn’t develop. “But the thunderstorms in the tropics that control global weather were more active … so we got quite a bit of snow cover,” he explained.

Climate models for the western U.S. show temperatures in New Mexico will be “near average” for March, April and May with precipitation “slightly above average” for the same period, Church explained. “It’s been several years since we’ve seen that,” he said. He cautioned that spring weather is difficult to predict.

Church added, “Take it with a grain of salt, but it is encouraging to see the outlook for June shows above-average precipitation.”

The monsoons look slightly above average for this summer, he said.

Jennifer Martynuik, Zone Aviation Officer and Air Tactical Group Supervisor for the Forest Service said she flies in a fixed-wing aircraft and helps coordinate when they have aircraft over a fire.

Addressing previous concerns, she explained the main component of fire retardants, “is phosphate, it’s basically fertilizer.” She said it is never put in waterways, and added it is a powder mixed with water and color that fades in sunlight. The color allows pilots to see where it has been laid down, she explained.

Martynuik said the 13 or 14 airplanes they use for retardant are now jets, and they are testing Boeing 737s for future adaptation for firefighting. In addition, she said, there are helicopters stationed throughout New Mexico and Arizona available for water drops.

The Bureau of Land Management, according to Martynuik, has taken the lead on the use of drones for fire surveillance and has them available to be called up. They also can be used to create thermal imaging maps, she added.

Within the Forest Service drones are known as Unmanned Aviation Systems, are considered aircraft and subject to more regulations than within the BLM, she said.

“But, up until [the recent federal government shutdown] we were going to go through with getting 32 people in the Forest Service trained to be pilots and data specialists … and so that’s been deferred a year,” Martynuik explained.

She said civilian drones pose a danger to firefighting aviation when there is a fire. “The best thing they can do is stay on the ground,” Martynuik said, adding, “Last year … it seemed any fire of any size we had a shutdown of aviation operations for a period of time because somebody was flying a drone.”

Arlene Perea of the Forest Service said, the message they want the public to know is, “If you fly, we can’t.”

The Red Cross representative, Sandra Darling-Roberts, told of the many resources the Red Cross provides in an emergency including disaster assessment with and for state and local government as well as available training that “matches FEMA’s” to make those assessments.

Darling-Roberts said, “All of Bernalillo County community center staff and management are now trained to be the initial people who open a shelter,” adding, “those trainings are free to anyone in the community.”

Todd Haines of N.M. State Forestry reminded the group, “New Mexico is one of the few states … that takes state money and puts it on federal land.” He said right now there is a crew from Santa Fe doing a project in the Santa Fe National Forest, in Santa Fe and going into the Nature Conservancy. “You got a local fire department going through funding from the state doing a federal project … everybody’s working together,” he said.

Addressing manpower concerns, Haines said federal agencies might have to lay people off after 1,039 hours, but the city departments and county departments can go a little longer. “The wildland firefighters, even the federal ones, can jump on with the counties or state … keeping wildland firefighters employed over the winter.”  

Haines touted the state’s “inmate work camp,” 10-person crews that cost $500 per day. “[National] Park Service loved them,” he said, “and when they get out, they make good firefighters.”

Bela Harrington from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Southern Pueblo Agency said they will staff two engine crews in March and possibly two more “as needed” engine crews, adding that the government shutdown means they are “about a month behind.”

Rob Barr from Valencia County said they are busy setting up “dip sites” on the west side of the Manzanos for helicopters to pick up water.

Torrance County’s Steve Guetschow reminded everyone about new windmills going up in the southeast quadrant of the county, of which air services will need to be aware.

Carole Glade from Mountainair Fire and EMS said they will be holding public education workshops. “The more people know, the more they can prevent,” she said. She extended an invitation to the participants to talk to the community, and specifically high school students, “who might find a career in fire service,” she said.

Bernalillo County’s Rick Healy said they have three “pumpkins,” portable water reservoirs used for filling helicopter buckets, available for other agencies to use. He said they also have two helicopters available.

Kirkland AFB has an engine and other equipment and will provide support on the west side of the Manzanos, Wildlands Support Module team member, Kevin Pacheco said, by “widening and enhancing fire breaks,” and encouraged the other agencies to call on them.

Brian Rose, Bernalillo County Fire Department Operations Chief, said, “We now have five drones in our department; the bigger one … has about a 7-kilometer range. That means to get a “quick look” the department doesn’t have to call up air assets, he said.

From the Claunch-Pinto Soil and Water Conservation District, Dierdre Tarr told the group about two non-federal grants from State Forestry through the Bernalillo office for $550,000 and one from the New Mexico Water Trust Board for $600,000: “Those are for thinning projects and starts in Cedar Grove and comes all the way down the mountain to the Mountainair area.”

“We have a FEMA grant that will be used around the Chilili Land Grant,” Tarr continued.

She said they have two forest restoration program grants, one to protect the source water for the Village of Corona and one to protect the “one watershed in the Manzano Mountains within the Claunch-Pinto District that has not burned.”

Martinez said the group had put together an interagency “frequency bank” a year ago as a test run including BIA, state, county and federal radio frequencies designed for initial attack on fires and for monitoring activity among agencies. “It came out real handy,” he said.