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A lesson for the fire, next time

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It might have been a lovely late afternoon were it not for the whipping winds and the acrid stench of doom blowing through our East Mountain neighborhood.

But it was the first Sunday in March, it was sunny and unseasonably warm and we weren’t about to let a little gale-force wind or smoky smell keep us from relaxing outside.

We chalked up the odor to a neighbor’s wood stove, and I had no fire alerts on my cellphone. Still, my son fretted. It smelled to him like the forest behind our home was on fire.

That’s when we saw the clouds of smoke roiling in David Canyon, just beyond my backyard in the Cibola National Forest.

Losing our neighborhood to fire is something we know is always a possibility when your home is among the 800 or so residences in the wildland-urban interface abutting the Sandia and Manzano mountains, especially when a lackluster winter has turned the forest into a tinderbox.

It’s a gamble we take for the benefit of living in a beautiful, bucolic place of ponderosa and peace. On Sunday, it appeared we were about to lose that bet.

Kirtland Air Force Base firefighters look for hot spots as they drive through a brush fire area in a remote part of the eastern training ranges on Monday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal )

What happened next shows that despite the “fire readiness” meetings various agencies have already put on for us residents in preparation for the upcoming fire season, what isn’t ready is the system that is supposed to alert and inform us about fire.

Just after 5 p.m., neighbors living west on N.M. 337 from Tijeras to Chilili had also become concerned about the heavy smoke and smell. Many of us are connected through NextDoor, a private online social network, and the connections started buzzing. Phone trees maintained by other neighbors started ringing. A Facebook page called East Mountain 411 started rocking.

A dispatcher for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office east area command center told me that other calls about the fire had been coming in and that units were already on the way.

I alerted the news staff at the Journal. Then I and others headed out to a trailhead near my home, the easiest way into the forest, expecting to find some answers and a battalion of fire crews heading in to save the forest and our neighborhood.

Instead, we found two men sitting in a Bernalillo County Fire Department vehicle. One of the men had little information to provide us. The other man, he told us, was on the phone talking to officials with Kirtland Air Force Base, because it was believed the fire may have started on base land.

Kirtland spokesman Jim Fisher said he learned of the fire about 5:15 p.m. and headed to the office. From his vantage point, he could not discern smoke from the dust clouds kicked up by the high winds.

The fire, he said, was small and burning on a remote hillside of low-lying piñon and juniper, miles from forested lands and homes, and it appeared it would likely run out of fuel to burn once the fire hit the rocky face of the hill. Kirtland crews were already working to put out the flames.

“We were never concerned it was going to be a threat,” Fisher said.

But Bernalillo County Fire communications specialist Larry Gallegos said he didn’t know that.

“The problem is, Kirtland didn’t tell us anything, ” he said. “They were tight-lipped. They said they were taking care of it and they never let our 911 people know anything other than they didn’t need us.”

By 6:30 p.m., my colleagues at the Journal said they were being told by county fire folks that the fire was “wrapped up.”

That, I knew, didn’t seem right, given the smoke and the wind.

Neighbors were also skeptical. Many were angry that no official word had been sent out to inform us where the fire was burning or whether to prepare to evacuate.

Some neighbors prepared to evacuate anyway. Others furtively searched web sites run by New Mexico Fire Information, the U.S. Forest Service, the East Mountain Interagency Fire Protection Association and local media and found nothing.

Finally, at 7:20 p.m., two hours after fear and panic and smoke had set in, an email advisory alert was sent out by the Bernalillo County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. It read:

“Crews are on scene of a fire on Kirtland Air Force Base. Smoke may be visible in the East Mtns. Check local media for updates.”

Which told us nothing we didn’t already know.

Kirtland also released information just after 7:30 p.m. through its social media accounts and through interviews with the Journal.

As night descended, the winds shifted and the smoke cleared. By morning, we learned that the fire, located some six miles northwest of my neighborhood, had burned through 135 acres of brush and cactus and was largely out. The cause is still under investigation, Fisher said.

Just as Fisher had said – though not publicly enough – the fire had never been a threat.

But for two crucial hours the public was left to worry and wonder and prepare to lose everything. That shouldn’t have happened.

With all the technological means by which we communicate, we still had a failure to communicate here.

“The lesson learned here from us is we could have provided more specific location of the fire, given a more accurate picture of what was going on,” Fisher said.

That goes for any agency tasked with fighting fires.

So let Sunday be a dry run in what portends to be a very dry, very dangerous fire season. Let’s get it right next time. Let’s communicate.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.

 

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