Not If, But When….

A scene from the Cerro Pelado Fire. Photo by Sarah DeMay

Program Manager
Chama Peak Land Alliance

Sarah DeMay, Chama Peak Land Alliance Board member and landowner in New Mexico, in both Tierra Amarilla and the Jemez mountains, has a big story to tell about wildfire preparedness.  Going back to earlier days, she says her husband, Sam, owned 12 acres in the Jemez prior to their meeting.  He began building the home they now live in, during the mid-1990s.  He was framing it in 1996 when the Dome Fire happened.  The Dome was the first big, hot fire in the area.  It stopped in their yard.  Sam was active helping during that fire, building safety zones nearby.

He realized access was an issue on his property, it was mostly mixed conifer with no recent fire activity due to forest management practices of fire suppression for the decades leading up to the 1990s.  It was immensely overgrown, and he began thinning the property, hiring the Conleys to masticate.  The work they did was ahead of the movement and largely because the property was so thick with trees, but he made strides preparing the property for wildfire. 

May of 2000 brought the Cerro Grande Fire.  The Cerro Grande went towards town, missing their Jemez property narrowly.  Sarah says that fire was historic, leading to the new megafire reality and the catastrophic nature of the big fires.  Sam had a construction business and he and his fire crew went to work building fire lines and saved many area homes.  The community appreciated the crew’s efforts, calling them the “Renegade Fire Crew”.  Sarah says at that point she thinks fire became a part of everyone’s lives.  The megafires were pivotal, certainly for their family, as she continued to fight fire and Sam adjusted to a life with fire as an ever-present component.  They had yet to meet, but the stars were aligning for that crossing, with fire continuing to weave through their lives. 

In 2003, Sarah was working in the Bandelier National Monument and went to assist on a project in the Gardner inholding.  The rest, as they say, was history.  She and Sam met, and the property continued to be an opportunity to do wildfire preparation.  By 2011 Sarah had quit her job and they had their first child.  That summer, the Las Conchas Fire started.  Another historical fire, because it was the fastest moving fire at that point in history, it started in late June due to a downed power line.  Over 60 homes were destroyed, and people literally had to run.  An off-grid community near their home on Cochiti Mesa burnt to the ground.  Sarah says it looked like a moonscape.  The ground was baked, and the large fire was disastrous.  Sam stayed on their property during that fire, Sarah vacated with the baby to Santa Fe, and their property weathered the storm with minimal burning.  It still had green trees while surrounding areas had nothing left.

Sarah reminded me at this point in our talk, that much of the work they did was also augmented by the nearby park activities that included thinning, broadcast burns, pile burns and continuing maintenance.  Every year, she says, there is work to be done if you live in forested lands. 

“A landowner must be aware of consequences and of fuel management,” she said.  She says their grazing animals also helped.  It was a dry year, much more so than previous, and the horse and two yaks grazed down the fuel load.  Neighbors in the area also were proactive, thinning and doing a lot of work.  There is a point, depending on where the fire hits, that there is no work that can stop the fire if you are located dead center in its movement.  Their home and property sat on the flank, and they managed to survive another catastrophic fire.   Many were not so lucky.  This is what makes landscape scale work so important, Sarah says.  Without private landowners, and the many state and federal agencies working together, megafires will continue. 

They purchased a property in Tierra Amarilla because of increasing dryness over the years in the Jemez.  While they still live in the Jemez, the new property in Tierra Amarilla came with more needs for preparation and they have worked on fire mitigation utilizing tools like the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program.  Each year the maintenance and monitoring happen, because as Sarah says, “It is not if, but when.”   They have faced down fire in the Jemez several times over the years and see that while the Tierra Amarilla property is not as dry as the Jemez, it, too, has a landscape that is prone to fire. 

That brings us to today, they sit evacuated, again, this time from the Cerro Pelado Fire that started much earlier this spring than the ‘normal’ fire season expectations.  One thing that has changed, Sarah says, is the idea that burns scars won’t burn again.  Much of this Cerro Pelado Fire is happening on the old Dome fire scar, and in the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas scars.  Without the buffer of a green season, fires are starting sooner.  She says even though they had snowpack, it went from snow to dry and dusty without a gap in between.  She says this fire is burning intensely through the scar, more so than expected, but it won’t crown and travel as fast as the previous fires. Their property will be okay, again, and the crews are holding the flank just past their driveway.  She reminds us that the work they did helped them immensely, but had their property been located dead-center during the Las Conchas Fire, their home would have been lost and the damage more significant. 

Sarah believes that fire must continue to be a part of healthy forest management.  And, she says, supporting the agencies trying to do the work is also important.  There is much work you can do to be ready for a fire, and she emphasizes being diligent.  Maintenance is continual, and many treatments have 10-year lifespans.  There are many opportunities for private landowners to get funding through various grants and programs geared towards landscape scale management.  Fire can easily come through and being prepared is a much better place to be than not. 

Special thanks to Sarah DeMay and her family for sharing their story while evacuated.  Thanks also, to Sarah, for pictures of their fire experiences.  Thoughts for everyone impacted by the current fires and a reminder to please be safe this spring and follow all guidelines set out by state and county officials, as well as operating in an abundance of safety given the drought and wind weather conditions.  Please be safe!