The Independent

Getting ready for an early fire season

Line construction. Photo courtesy of Bernalillo County Fire.

“[Fire risk] does not look good for us—I just got the outlook from National Weather Service, New Mexico should be expecting less than 15 percent of normal precipitation [in 2018.]”

Those were the words of Susan Powers, Wildland Fire Coordinator from Bernalillo County, who said this year the fire season will start mid- to late February. “There have already been a couple of small fires around the state in January. One was around Silver City and another out towards Santa Rosa,” Powers said.

In the past Powers has assisted with significant fires as early as Feb. 4 and as late as Thanksgiving. She said in New Mexico fires from February to November are not uncommon. “Snow is water in the bank for summer—if we don’t have that we are setting ourselves up for another downward spiral,” Powers said.

Bernalillo Fire department and the Office of Emergency Management will be conducting fire safety meetings during the fire season. The first public outreach meeting will be Feb. 28, at the Los Vecinos Community Center at 6 p.m.

According to Powers, this is the best time of year to mitigate risks around properties because insects—like the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle, which can kill off large numbers of trees—because trees are dormant.

There is not as much sap and insects are not as active. “The smell of freshly cut plant matter can draw in more of the destructive insects, kill trees and increase fire risk,” she said. “This is the time to do big fuel reduction projects. The ongoing neverending task of maintenance is huge,” Powers added.

People should focus on target areas, Powers said, for example, “Five feet all around house there should be no accumulated litter, leaf litter, pine needles, branches, or twigs. Rain gutters, roof and the dead fall can hold an ember and lead to burning down a house.” She also said ornamental vegetation needs to be well cared-for and watered.

Plants like bulbs have higher moisture content compared to evergreen shrubbery, and are a more desirable plant in terms of fire safety. Powers also noted that any vines crawling on house can burn and that some species are more fire-tolerant that others. She said the best thing people can do to create ideal conditions around homes is to avoid having any plants in first 5 feet up to their houses.

“The environment has evolved to have fire as a natural part of ecosystem. One of the things fire does to maintain forest health is having regular introduction of low intensity fires. The fires take out young trees, sick trees, deadfall and brush,” Powers said.

Near homes it is important to remove all dead branches. An average-sized adult should be able to walk under a tree. Clearing 5- to 6 feet up the tree trunk and avoiding leaving dead waste on the ground will create those conditions.

If a person lives in a heavily wooded area, from the 5-foot mark outward from the house, trees should be 50 feet out. People should thin out trees so that there is 15 to 20 feet between trees in the canopy to reduce fire risk. Removing lower limbs makes fires easier to suppress.

People can contact Powers through Bernalillo County to have a wildfire specialist come out and assess properties. This service is paid by property taxes, so there is no charge to residents.

The office requires a week or two notice but Powers said, “sometimes we can be more flexible. It really depends on what is going on at that time.”

Powers can be reached at 505-468-1338 from Monday to Thursday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by email at spowers@bernco.gov.

“What I am really seeking is community input. We want to know what citizens want to know. We want to know what individual property owners’ concerns are,” Powers said.