Let’s avoid the big one

March 20, 2018

Northern New Mexico can’t say it hasn’t been warned.

This year, expect fires. Expect them to burn hot. Don’t be caught unprepared.

The next big fire could be caused by a lightning strike or a tossed cigarette or a downed power line or an inadequately doused campfire.

Be ready.

Forecasters say that the dry winter, along with unseasonably warm temperatures, already has left conditions in Northern New Mexico forests tinder dry. State and federal responders are getting ready now, before fires begin. With overgrown forests and scant snowpack, they want to be prepared.

Controlled burns to reduce overgrown forests, brush clearing and other work is taking place before it is too late. Fire crews are on call even before the season begins. Conditions are potentially that explosive. Solid rains for much of 2017, which stopped about October, led to healthy growth in vegetation. With little moisture since, the growth is dried and ripe for fire. And that fire season, experts say , appears to be lasting a month longer than it did decades ago.

We’ve already had a taste of burns to come. The first big fire, the Stateline Fire along the borders of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado, engulfed nearly 28,000 acres earlier this month.

The forecast ahead is grim, with the National Interagency Fire Center predicting above-normal potential for large fires across most of the Southwest in April and May. Most all of New Mexico is abnormally dry or in drought conditions, while winds have been fierce and little precipitation is expected. About the best hope is for early monsoons, with summer rains happening sooner than later.

Nature will do what nature will do. Rains will come. Or not. But people do have some control. We can continue to reduce overgrowth in the forests, eliminating fuel before a fire starts. Santa Fe National Forest officials are carefully conducting prescribed burns, concentrating on reducing fuel so that any fires caused by man or nature will not burn as hot. The city of Santa Fe and partners have worked diligently to make our watershed safer. More fire-preparedness work has taken place in the Santa Fe, Jemez and Carson forests as well.

We can take individual responsibility, preparing our homes, especially those of us who live where cities and the wild meet. Clear debris. Move the wood pile away from buildings. Cut back dry brush or trees.

The key is to build defensible spaces around homes, a zone between fuel for a fire and buildings. Should the worst happen, be ready. Prepare an emergency kit, with the necessities packed in case of evacuation (prescriptions, precious photographs and the like).

Outdoors lovers who want to hike, fish or camp should be more careful than usual. Sifting through campfires, actually touching the ashes and dousing them with water repeatedly must be standard operating procedure — if, that is, restrictions aren’t put in place soon. Careless individuals have to stop smoking outdoors, too, or tossing cigarettes from the window as they drive. One spark is all it takes.

Should it remain dry, there will be limits on fires, chain saws, use of motorized vehicles and restrictions on anything that could cause a spark. That’s as it should be, and while people still can access the wild, they should be more careful than ever.

Even with dry conditions, a catastrophic fire is not inevitable. We can be lucky. We can be careful. And we can be prepared. This year, more than ever, the threat of fire must be taken seriously by one and all.