With the length of the fire season on the rise in recent years, it’s imperative that New Mexicans take a proactive approach to wildfire prevention.
Enter the “Wildfire Preparedness is Year-Round” campaign, an initiative launched by the New Mexico Forestry Division, the Forest Stewards Guild and numerous partners at other national forests, agencies and non-governmental organizations. The goal is for communities to become fire-adapted through communication, awareness and preventative measures.
“We really just want to encourage and empower folks to make incremental progress towards wildfire adaptation, toward this reality that we are going to continue to see wildfire,” said Gabe Kohler, who is the program manager for the Forest Stewards Guild. “We try (to send a) message that we’re never really done. It’s this continual process of honing how our homes and communities are prepared for wildfire. We really just want to support people in that incremental approach rather than a one-and-done mentality.”
According to the Albuquerque Weather Forecast Office, spring temperatures (both maximum and minimum) are increasing, while spring precipitation is on the decline during La Niña. The overall trend toward windier, warmer and drier weather leads to longer fire seasons.
“We are seeing fire seasons that are on average 80 days longer than they have been in like, 1980,” Kohler said. “We’re seeing just some changes in how our forests are drying out in the spring and even in the winter.”
One of the key aspects of the WPYR campaign is staying connected. Community members are highly encouraged to get to know their neighbors and work together to better understand the risks of wildfire in their respective areas. According to Kohler, that type of communication often can make more of an impact than notifications from various agencies throughout the state.
“I think we all recognize that we get information or we kind of process information differently when it comes from folks that we trust in that neighbor-to-neighbor way,” he said. “When people talk directly to their peers about things like wildfire or changes in climate it can have a different effect on their behavior. That’s what we’re trying to encourage. I think folks are used to hearing from land management agencies, weather service and other organizations about things like wildfire risk. When we hear it from our neighbors and our peers, I think it’s more impactful.”
According to the Fire Adapted NM website (facnm.org), some of the measures homeowners can take include creating defensible space, having an evacuation plan in place, improving access and exit routes, and reducing the ignitability of structures in the area. Seasonal yard maintenance, such as raking leaves, trimming trees growing too close to homes and removing other dead plants and debris can also help reduce the risk of wildfires.
Kohler adds that many homeowners don’t consider the potential impact of embers, which are often more likely than direct flames to cause structures to burn in a wildfire.
“I think for a lot of our communities that aren’t right up against the trees, it’s easy to think that fire is not gonna influence your home because the flames might not spread directly to your home,” Kohler said. “But what we’re seeing in a lot of these urban configurations, these big fires that get into communities, is that it’s ember-to-house transmission.
“So we’re seeing a lot of ignition from embers, landing in gutters, landing right around people’s homes and starting a fire close to their structure. We’re also seeing house-to-house spread. This kind of changes the way we think about reducing risk in our neighborhoods. We want to work with those that live close to us and communicate across fence lines whenever possible.”
Kohler says the campaign has been successful through a number of means, including media engagement, increased traffic on facnm.org and through wide-spread support from various agencies and partners. The goal is to maintain that momentum.
“Going forward into next year, we’re having conversations about new partners that we can incorporate into this communications effort,” he said. “Bring the number of voices, sharing the same message in growing that number of voices is a way that I think we can be more effective. As we bring in other partners, we can reach broader audiences.”