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Fire fear

Jesus Figueroa, in truck, hauls up sections of a cut up tree as Jose Badachi, right, clears the limbs out of the water along Ruidoso River. Thinning stands of trees is one of the ways locals hope to decrease the fire power of any blaze that might threaten the area. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)
Jesus Figueroa, in truck, hauls up sections of a cut up tree as Jose Badachi, right, clears the limbs out of the water along Ruidoso River. Thinning stands of trees is one of the ways locals hope to decrease the fire power of any blaze that might threaten the area. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)
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RUIDOSO – Some say New Mexico has five seasons, the fifth and least celebrated being fire season, which runs roughly from April until monsoons arrive, hopefully, in July.

After last year, when the Little Bear Fire wreaked havoc across 44,000 acres north of Ruidoso, destroying more than 250 structures in the process to claim the title, by one measure, of the most destructive fire in state history, area residents are a bit wary about the upcoming season.

But they are not standing still.

The Forest Service has treated, with a combination of prescribed burns and tree thinning operations, about 8,000 acres in the Lincoln National Forest since last fire season, and partnered with other entities like the Mescalero Apache tribe on projects to better safeguard communities.

Ruidoso officials are continuing a decade-old effort to make the city more “firewise” by requiring residents to create defensible space around homes and thin trees from densely grown properties.

The fresh lumber of a new home under construction contrasts with the surroundings, burned in last spring’s Little Bear fire that devastated 44,000 acres in the Ruidoso area.  (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

The fresh lumber of a new home under construction contrasts with the surroundings, burned in last spring’s Little Bear fire that devastated 44,000 acres in the Ruidoso area. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

Earlier this month, the first hotshot crews arrived in the area, ready to respond if a wildfire breaks out.

The outlook for the fire season so far is grim. The drought has lasted roughly 12 years, interrupted three years ago by a two-year stretch of average rainfall.

Despite the severe outlook, Chad Stewart, the fire and timber staff officer for the Lincoln National Forest, said the fire season appears to him to be shaping up as an “average year for us.”

But, he added, “That doesn’t mean we won’t be busy… Our average is pretty high.” The Lincoln averages about 30 wildfires per year. In the entire southeast corner of the state, there were about 300 wildfires in 2012.

Persistent drought has left the forest dry and vulnerable to fire sparked by lightning, the usual ignition source in the West, but it’s anyone’s guess whether a fire, fueled by spring wind, might spin out of control.

The Little Bear fire caused, conservatively, more than $22.5 million in losses of homes and depressed value to undeveloped land, and cost more than $19.4 million to fight. It was ignited by a lightning strike on June 4 in a wilderness area, and while the Forest Service tried to suppress the fire from the start, gusting winds caused it to spin out of control on June 8.

Dave Warnack, the Lincoln’s Smokey Bear District ranger in Ruidoso, said the effects of the drought on fire behavior were “profound.”

The Bonita Park Nazarene Camp and Conference Center, where 90 percent of the structures on the property were destroyed, is getting a new events center and manufactured homes for the staff. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

The Bonita Park Nazarene Camp and Conference Center, where 90 percent of the structures on the property were destroyed, is getting a new events center and manufactured homes for the staff. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

Around town, people have enlisted the resort town’s 18 tree-cutting services to thin out properties clogged with trees.

“There’s not anything we can do to stop the fires from coming generally,” said Robert Vance, a retired El Paso firefighter who is a member of the Bonito Volunteer Fire Department and works part time with a tree-thinning service called TLC Trees. “All we can do is prepare ourselves and our equipment, make sure we’re as ready as we can be.”

Vance was working with a tree-thinning outfit recently cutting down five large trees on the property of Ruidoso resident Ike Burns. A city worker had marked the trees to cut. “It needed to happen,” Burns said. “We got a couple of snows (over the winter), but not heavy snows. . . . Everybody needs to be careful.”

Anti-fire ordinances

In 2002, after Ruidoso had been designated the most vulnerable community in the state to wildfire, the village council passed several ordinances requiring property owners to reduce hazardous fuels on their land. The ordinances were aimed at creating defensible space of 30 feet around homes and thinning stands of trees.

The ordinances represented a break from Ruidoso’s recent past. Ponderosa pines had been treated as precious by the part-time residents, who own about three-fourths of the homes in town and many of whom are Texans seeking refuge from the heat of the lowlands. Before the ordinances, a homeowner needed city approval before cutting down any tree greater than five inches in diameter, said Dick Cooke, Ruidoso’s director of forestry.

“It’s come full circle,” said Eddie Saenz, a city forestry technician.

Even today, however, it is not uncommon in Ruidoso’s Upper Canyon, an area with one road in and out, to see homes with trees growing through a porch or deck or the eaves.

Cooke said the village’s firewise program, which treats about 1,000 acres of land per year, has been successful.

“We are probably about 65 percent complete, and we’ve gotten most of the critical areas done,” Cooke said. “From the forest fuels standpoint, we are not in too bad a shape.”

Cooke said he is fine-tuning an updated version of the ordinance that will focus on the distance between trees, rather than capping the square footage of trees on a particular property. The change is aimed at reducing the likelihood of trees spreading a wildfire crown to crown.

Forest managers prefer fires to stay on the ground, where flames can burn up pine needles, dead trees and smaller trees, creating more open spaces. So Ruidoso forestry technicians push homeowners to space trees through thinning and prune remaining trees up to six feet from the ground, or 25 percent of the height of the tree, to prevent ground flames from climbing into a tree’s canopy.

Friction remains

Despite the cooperation among government agencies, friction remains between the Forest Service and local residents, many of whom blame the federal agency, and environmentalists, for allowing the Lincoln and other national forests to grow so thick that fire danger is high.

But there appears to be increasing cooperation. The Forest Service signed an agreement earlier this month allowing Otero County to cut trees and remove slash on 167 acres of forest west of Cloudcroft.

Meanwhile, locals are trying to return to pre-Little Bear normal. That’s not easy in a place like the Bonita Park Nazarene Camp and Conference Center, where the Little Bear destroyed nearly 90 percent, or 138, of the 154 structures on the 200-acre camp property owned by the Church of the Nazarene.

Still, camp operations continue. Brenda Garber, the camp’s human resource director who lost her home to the fire last year, bought one of the few that survived. In January, the camp installed a handful of manufactured homes to house its staff, and two privately owned homes are under construction. The camp is raising funds to build a new 36,000-square-foot events center.

“We’re just learning what the new normal is,” Garber said.

Warnack said government officials are doing all they can, given the constraints of limited funding for forest treatment.

“The fact is that we live right in the middle of a ponderosa pine forest, and it’s going to take a long time for public lands managed by agencies and private lands managed by individuals to get to more resilient conditions,” Warnack said.

— This article appeared on page B01 of the Albuquerque Journal

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