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ABQ-area homes face growing risk of wildfires

A firefighter sprays water from a brush truck onto a bosque and field fire near Marcelino Road close to Isleta and I-25 on February 2008. (Journal File)
A firefighter sprays water from a brush truck onto a bosque and field fire near Marcelino Road close to Isleta and I-25 on February 2008. (Journal File)
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

About 1,100 homes valued at almost $140 million in the Albuquerque metro area are at very high risk of being destroyed by wildfires, according to CoreLogic, an Irvine, Calif., company that analyzes real-estate trends.

The Thompson Ridge Fire near Jemez Springs in northern New Mexico in June 2013. (U.S. Forest Service/AP)

The Thompson Ridge Fire near Jemez Springs in northern New Mexico in June 2013. (Kristen Honig/Valles Caldera Trust)

Almost 10,800 homes worth more than $1.2 billion face a high to very high risk of wildfire in areas including Albuquerque’s foothills, Tijeras, Placitas, Cedar Crest, Sandia Park, Edgewood and Jemez Springs.

Statewide, 35,000 homes valued at $5 billion face a high or very high risk of being destroyed by wildfires.

The danger is very real, said Bernalillo County Fire Marshal Chris Gober. “It’s not a matter of if but when does the fire hit.”

Santa Fe firefighters battle a brush fire in March near the Santa Fe Suites on St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe. (Journal File)

Santa Fe firefighters battle a brush fire in March near the Santa Fe Suites on St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe. (Journal File)

“People have this sense it won’t happen in my backyard,” he said. “We haven’t had a fire in the Sandias or the East Mountain area for decades. We’ve been lucky. The time will come when there is a fire, and it will be a devastating fire.”

The danger of property destruction due to wildfire seems to be worsening nationally. In a just-released report, CoreLogic said 2,216 residences nationwide were lost to wildfires in 2012, compared to an average annual loss of 1,416 residences between 1999 and 2011.

While the number of wildfires has been declining from 2005 to 2012, probably due to cyclical weather patterns and vegetation growth, the number of acres burned is rising. In 2012, 9.326 million acres were burned, compared to a 10-year annual average of 7.262 million acres burned.

Smoke rises from the Silver Fire in southern New Mexico's Gila National Forest. (U.S. Forest Service/AP)

Smoke rises from the Silver Fire in southern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. (U.S. Forest Service/AP)

CoreLogic said that among the homes at very high risk of wildfire are:

  • 391 homes in Tijeras worth $62.3 million.
  • 60 homes in Sandia Park worth almost $6 million.
  • 167 homes in Edgewood worth $36.8 million.
  • 142 homes in Cedar Crest worth $12.3 million.
  • 368 homes in Jemez Springs worth more than $20 million.

Of the 13 western states evaluated, Texas faces the highest risk, with almost 679,000 homes worth $77.5 billion at high or very high risk of destruction by wildfires. California is at the next highest risk, with 375,500 homes worth $69.4 billion in the high or very high risk categories.

CoreLogic blamed dry weather and the condition of forests for the danger, but the biggest risk stems from the encroachment of homes on locations where wildfires are likely to occur. In other words, more homes are in harm’s way than ever before.

Bizo_jd_04nov_WildfireThis so-called urban interface problem was confined to the West Coast in the 1970s, but both Bernalillo and Los Alamos counties have faced the problem for some time, and it is showing up in Lincoln and Otero counties, State Fire Marshal John Standefer said.

CoreLogic said “an unprecedented expansion of urban areas over the past 50 years has greatly increased the opportunity for homes to be damaged by wildfire activity due to their location near high-wildfire-risk areas.”

Those areas have become high risk through a combination of drought and traditional fire-suppression efforts, which have allowed fuel to accumulate in forests, according to the report.

Forest fires burn hotter and faster than ever, Standefer said. “Add on top of that we’re putting structures right there, so it’s next to impossible to protect these structures.”

More fire-fighting resources and better forest management will help, “but people in interface areas are going to have to take a lot of responsibility themselves. They are going to have to learn what to do if they insist on living there,” Standefer said.

Gober added, “there is risk in everything we do … it’s a matter of managing the risk.”

Bernalillo County has been encouraging residents for years to create a “defensible space” around their homes, by removing trees and tree limbs, removing fuel such as pine needles and keeping plantings at least 30 feet away from the home. The county encourages homeowners to replace wood siding and roofs with fire-resistant materials, such as metal siding. Homes can be surrounded with gravel to keep fire from finding fuel on the ground.

The county is planning a major exercise next year to test how fire-fighting agencies will respond to a major fire. It will stage mock evacuations, set up shelters, test communications and see how well volunteer fire departments, county firefighters and other agencies coordinate fire-fighting efforts.

The Forest Service is trying to improve forest health with prescribed burns and thinning.

Such efforts help, but the weather hasn’t been cooperating.

“Last year only five states in the western U.S. recorded precipitation at or above their normal levels, and the high temperatures and dry conditions converted existing fuel into tinder, adding even more volume to the fuel load from dead and dying vegetation,” according to CoreLogic. Every state recorded above-average annual temperatures, and 19 states set record-high temperatures.

The resulting fires have been big and dangerous. The Rim Fire in California consumed 257,000 acres, the Black Forest Fire south of Denver destroyed 486 structures, the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona killed 19 firefighters, and the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in New Mexico burned 297,000 acres.

CoreLogic quotes National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis as saying these large fires are likely to continue in the western United States for the foreseeable future.

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