Fire Chief addresses concerns over rapidly developing dry, windy conditions; urges residents to be prepared for an active fire season in Los Alamos County
Los Alamos Fire Chief Troy Hughes said Wednesday that the 2020 fire season is shaping up to be active for wildfires to occur in urban-wildland interface communities across Northern New Mexico.
“As residents have probably noticed, we’ve had many windy days after a dry winter with little snowfall,” Hughes said, adding that the fire department has been increasing resources and taking active steps this year to be prepared.
“We are fortunate that LAFD, in partnership with LANL, has taken delivery and provided training to firefighters on six new wildland engines,” he said, “These new engines will increase our fire-fighting capabilities significantly, but it’s still important for residents to do everything they can to prevent fires.”
Hughes reminded the community that a key part of any protection plan is for homeowners to create defensible space around their property.
“I’m glad to see so many people out working in their yards during this COVID-19 stay-at-home order,” he said, “Clearing away dead brush, moving combustible items away from your house, cleaning up pine needles that can feed fuel to a wildfire, and trimming back lower branches on trees that can provide ‘ladder fuels’ for a ground fire to spread into forested areas – all of these are great steps that most individuals can do with the right tools and a little spare time.”
Hughes commented on the recent fuels mitigation project that LAFD is wrapping up.
“Chief Kelly Sterna and his crews have been working tirelessly to mitigate 114 acres in seven separate project areas identified in the 2016 update of our Community Wildfire Protection Plan,” he said, noting that the best defense against wildfire is to create that space or boundary between homes and forest fuels.
“This year marks the 20th year since the Cerro Grande Fire, when over 400 families lost their homes and nearly 48,000 acres of land in and around Los Alamos were burned. In 2011 we had the Las Conchas fire that threatened Los Alamos as well. We’ve had numerous smaller fires in the Jemez Mountains, too. After the devastation of the Cerro Grande Fire in particular, we know that the community was interested in taking active steps to create defensible space around their homes because they had witnessed how devastating and fast-spreading a wildfire can be,” Hughes said. “The County hired professional forestry experts and contractors in 2000 to help property owners with defensible space planning as part of FEMA mitigation funding we received.”
“What’s happened since then – where are we 20 years after that major community-wide effort? Is it time to take another look? I urge property owners to get outside this weekend and see what needs to be addressed today. Now is the time for individuals to assess their property and take action. With everything else going on with our first responders and the COVID-19 pandemic, we need the community’s help so that we can keep our firefighters and public safety employees safe,” he said.
Hughes said that LAFD offers several resources for updates about conditions in the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest, especially given restrictions during COVID-19, as well as other fire education tools for early planning.
“There are good educational resources on our webpage about how to create defensible space, as well as recommendations on how to prepare a “go bag” in case of an emergency evacuation for a wildfire. There are websites where the public can get current info on fire activity happening across New Mexico,” he said.
Hughes said that firefighters in LAFD’s Wildland Division will offer advice to residents looking for ways to improve the safety of their home from wildfire, especially those new to Los Alamos.
“We know that our community has seen a great influx of new families moving here, who may not be aware of their personal responsibility for taking care of defensible space and the very real possibility each Spring of the threat of wildfire here in our mountainous community bordered by national forest,” he said.
Annually, LAFD typically hosts a weekend event for public education on fire protection in April, but Hughes said this year’s pandemic situation meant that the event had to be canceled.
“Since we weren’t able to host our event, I want to encourage everyone to become familiar with these resources now while under the stay-at-home order. Take action today when there is time to address these important issues – have a family plan that you could carry out in case of a fire and be sure your family members know the plan. It pays to be prepared.”
Hughes said that LAFD will be monitoring conditions and could begin to impose fire restrictions in the coming weeks, based upon dryness indices for fuels in the forests surrounding the County.
“We’re asking for everyone’s cooperation as we head into May and June, when the threat is the highest before we get to our monsoon season in July,” he said, “Let’s work together to steer Los Alamos through another active fire season and keep everyone safe.”
Visit these resources for more info:
Santa Fe National Forest: https://www.fs.usda.gov/santafe/
New Mexico Fire Information: https://nmfireinfo.com/
LAFD Wildland Division webpage with useful links: https://www.losalamosnm.us/government/departments/fire_department/wildlanddivision