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Agencies anticipate and prepare for severe wildfire season

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Eagle Scout candidate Cody Crane, from Troop 2010 in Rio Rancho, stands with Smokey Bear while reading a proclamation from Gov. Susana Martinez proclaiming March 25-31 as New Mexico Wildfire Awareness Week. (JIM THOMPSON/JOURNAL)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to wildfires, it’s not a question of if, but when they will happen in New Mexico — particularly this year.

With the state coming off a winter that has left the mountains devoid of a significant snow pack, and an abundance of brush and tinder, the state is gearing up for what is expected to be a severe fire season.

That was the message conveyed Tuesday during a news conference at the Open Space Visitors Center, attended by community leaders and representatives of local, state, federal and tribal agencies that are charged with regulating and protecting lands.

Interagency discussions are ongoing, plans are in place and new firefighters and volunteer firefighters have been training since the fall in anticipation of the fire season, which has already gotten underway, said Lieutenant Gov. John Sanchez.

The news conference comes as the state observes Wildfire Awareness Week in New Mexico, which began Sunday and goes through Saturday.

“Last year for the first time in nearly two decades we enjoyed virtually no drought in our state,” said Sanchez. But even with that generous snow and rainfall, the state still recorded 370 fires burning through more than 33,000 acres.

“But compare that to 2016, when 622 fires burned 118,000 acres and we lost a dozen homes in the Dog Head Fire,” he said.

Conditions since last year have changed considerably. “An abnormally dry winter has left our mountains nearly barren, and moderate to extreme drought conditions are nearly covering the entire state. The lack of significant snow pack, paired with strong wind, significantly warmer temperatures and the abundance of fine fuels make New Mexico increasingly vulnerable to severe wildfire conditions,” Sanchez said.

Perhaps, as a harbinger of the rest of the season, he noted that since Jan. 1, New Mexico firefighters have battled about 130 wildfires that charred more than 31,000 acres. Of those wildfires, 66 were during March and more than 90 percent of them were human caused.

State Forester Donald Griego said there are currently 746 communities around New Mexico that have been identified as “at risk” from wildfire, emphasizing the need for all the interagency partners to work together to preserve lives, homes, wildlife and watersheds.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, who also attended the news conference, noted that the city has more than 30,000 acres of major public space and “miles of forest running the heart of our city.”

Crews are busy clearing out the bosque of brush and dead wood to reduce the amount of fuel that could feed a fire, and will hopefully complete that task by late April, he said.

“While our firefighters and Open Space Division do a great job looking out for the bosque and the open space areas, they can’t be everywhere at once. That’s why we need everyone to come together as one city to do what we can to prevent wildfires,” Keller said. “Early detection can be the difference between a small fire or a large scale fire.”

For information about fire restrictions and active fires, go to the interagency website at nmfireinfo.com or consult the New Mexico State Parks website at nmparks.com.

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