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Gearing up for potentially ‘big’ fire season

Larry Martinez, from Espanola, hand lights a prescribed burn in the Santa Fe watershed in September 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing that made 2020 such a horrific year. It was also a historically bad year for wildfires across the United States, to put it mildly.

States such as California and Colorado saw extreme wildfires that lasted for weeks, turning the sky orange in some of the nation’s largest cities.

In New Mexico, lightning strikes caused a large, out-of-season fire in the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF), later named the Medio Fire, which burned more than 4,000 acres.

As a result, local forest and fire officials are already preparing for what could be another big wildfire year for New Mexico in 2021.

Terrance Gallegos, deputy fire staff for SFNF, said extreme drought conditions in the area — which have lasted close to a year — have severely dried out the area, making it more prone to multiple wildfire events. Recent snowfall has done little to mitigate the danger.

“It’s still really dry and it’s going to take a pretty significant amount of moisture to get to where it’s not going to be a significant factor,” Gallegos said. “A lot of the vegetation during drought has a hard time recovering.”

Santa Fe Assistant Fire Chief Brian Moya said his team is already bracing for the worst, both in New Mexico and in other states where local firefighters are asked to assist.

“We’re thinking it’s going to be a big fire season this year,” Moya said.

Part of that preparation is assembling a team of seasonal wildland operators, tasked with preventing and addressing any wildfires that may pop up.

The City Quality of Life Committee approved a budget adjustment of $250,000 to allow the funding of 15 seasonal employees, including 11 wildland operators and four sawyers, who are trained to use heavy equipment, such as chainsaws.

Moya said those positions had to be eliminated last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic impact on city finances, but added the fire department has now found the money for the positions.

“It’s very important,” he said. “We can use them for anything we need.”

Carlos Saiz, from Santa Fe, limbs up a diseased ponderosa pine in 2018 before taking it down. The project aimed to thin part of the Santa Fe National Forest ahead of the traditional wildfire season. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

That includes managing prescribed burns and clearing brush around residences, two methods that cut down on the fuel a fire can use to expand rapidly.

And while all city firefighters are trained to fight wildfires, Moya said, these workers can travel to other areas to assist with wildland fires, for which the city receives reimbursement. He said the expenditure would eventually pay for itself.

The Santa Fe City Council will vote on a final approval of the positions on Feb. 24.

Distributing those resources will, however, be a challenge, especially as western states experience more wildfires. A 2019 report from NASA showed wildfires have become more frequent over the past few decades due to human-caused climate change.

Gallegos said that can lead to various jurisdictions jockeying for resources, especially when wildfires start burning out of season.

The Medio Fire, for example, burned in August when monsoon rains typically dampen the chances of large wildfire activity.

“It puts strain on other parts of the country, as well as here,” Gallegos said. “You’re not quite getting everything that you want.”

Moya said the department has enough trained firefighters going into the next wildfire season, which typically lasts from April to June. Assuming city councilors approve their funding, Moya said the department will start hiring for the wildland operator positions, many of whom will be local residents.

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