“Mommy, there is a fire by my window,” your 5-year-old daughter says as she shakes you out of a deep sleep. It is 1 a.m. and you struggle to gain your senses. As you rise, you can see the yellowish glow of wildfire outside your home, which is located near an overgrown forest.
Your husband is away, but you know what to do – get in the car and go. But as you fetch your 7-year-old son, you notice that the fire has engulfed the driveway.
A chill encompasses your body as you realize that you have not removed brush and trees from around your home, and with its well-oiled wood siding and decks, you are inside a tinderbox. You will have to escape on foot through the back door and into a dark forest, a path you never considered. You did not prepare and you are running for the lives of your family.
Think it can’t happen? Think again. It is happening in California now. Closer to home, much of New Mexico’s forests are heavily overgrown, and many homes and ranches are perilously positioned among high-fuel areas. This spring is projected to be warm and very dry, with heightened fire danger – ideal conditions for the imaginary case above where dry lightning sparked a fire that quickly spread into a private area before authorities could react.
But it should never have come to this. Every resident, rancher and vacation home owner in a forested area – especially those with children, elderly folks and animals – must plan for wildfire, including evacuation. Tom Bennion, a Jemez Springs fire expert, suggests that the most important preparation is a defensible, low-fuel area around your home, so that it becomes a safe place in case you are trapped.
Donald Griego, New Mexico’s chief forester, calls for action. “With many communities embedded in high fuel areas,” he said, “people must pay attention.” There are common sense ways to prepare for a wildfire emergency:
⋄ Visit your county’s offices or website and sign up for the CodeRED mass notification warning system that provides regular emergency updates to your phone, including evacuation orders.
⋄ Create a defensible area around your home, barn, shed or any other valuable structure by removing nearby combustible materials. The State’s Forestry Division and your local fire officials can provide free guidance (http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SFD/).
⋄ Encourage your neighbors to clear their properties and lobby government officials to do the same on nearby public lands.
⋄ Inform the local authorities of any special needs, such as children, pets or livestock, and plan for their evacuation. Dennis Trujillo, former Executive Director of the Valles Caldera, advises that during fire periods ranchers should “keep their cattle in more of an open space environment.”
⋄ Ensure that fuels, such as gasoline cans, are stored in metal containers with a tight lid. Store the metal container far from valued assets.
⋄ Work with local fire officials and your landowners’ association to plan escape routes from your home or ranch, including ones that would allow you to walk away safely. Mark and clear the routes, keeping in mind that you may have to use them on a moonless night. Practice your plan, just as you did in grammar school fire drills.
⋄ Coordinate with your neighbors so that you can help each other.
⋄ Place a checklist of emergency actions where you can easily find and read it in an emergency.
⋄ Keep a backpack or duffle bag handy with essential materials that you will need in an escape. The pack should contain a flashlight, water and some snacks, a first aid kit, copies of critical documents, essential medicines and personal needs, a whistle, maps, clothing and critical possessions.
Like the Boy Scouts and their proverbial mantra, always prepare for the unexpected. The most expected unexpected event is wildfire.
Menicucci is a retired research engineer who owns property in Jemez Springs.