ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Hot, dry grass, high winds, and drought are ideal ingredients for a wildfire. And those ingredients are found in abundance in New Mexico.
The result is a state prone to catching fire. As of early April, crews around the state have dealt with a large, wind-fueled fire near Belen, the Hermits Peak fire north of Santa Fe near Las Vegas, and a prescribed burn that got of control between Dexter and Roswell.
With clear indicators that the state is likely headed into a busy fire season, KRQE News 13 spoke with the New Mexico Forestry Division. Wildfire Prevention and Communications Coordinator Wendy Mason offers the state fire agency’s perspective on the risks and how to stay safe.
What makes New Mexico unique for fire hazards?
New Mexico “is a unique ecosystem,” says Wendy Mason. “The whole state is at risk for wildfire, due to drought.”
Recently, the vast majority of land in New Mexico has been in drought conditions. As of April 5, 2022, 99% of the state is at least “abnormally dry,” and nearly 50% of the state is in “extreme” or “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. (Click here for the latest conditions).
In addition to statewide drought, the unique plant life of New Mexico plays a role in wildfire risk. Mason explains that different parts of the state have different types of fuels. What she calls “fine fuels” are especially important.
“We have our grasslands that are mostly along eastern New Mexico that are significantly impacted this year. We’ve had a lot of activity because the amount of ‘fine fuels’ that we have — a lot of grasses that can dry out very quickly in a short period of time.”
When is “Fire Season?”
“Typically, here in New Mexico, May and June are our busiest months for wildfire,” Mason says. “So that’s typically our fire season.” That’s because, around July, the state tends to get monsoon rains that make it harder for grasses and trees to spark. But, she adds, climate change is actually changing New Mexico’s fire season.
“In this day and age, where we’re dealing with a changing climate where our temperatures are warming, we’re not necessarily having a regular fire season,” Mason adds.
“So you know, there really isn’t a fire season anymore because of our changing climate. So it’s really important to be mindful of conditions and be prepared all year long,” she says.
How can homeowners prepare?
“The main thing is maintaining defensible space,” Mason says. That means keeping trash, debris, and weeds from building up around your home.
The New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Forestry Division provides a list of recommendations here. They recommend keeping firewood and other flammable material at least 50 feet from your home and removing all trees and large shrubs within 30 feet of your home.
You can also mow grasses near your home to less than 6 inches in height, the division recommends. And, make sure your roof and gutters are free of leaves and pine needles.
“A wildfire doesn’t have to be right on top of you. It’s not flames that are the highest risk. It’s actually the embers, that can travel in the wind, that are more likely to start a home on fire,” Mason says. And depending on the wind, those embers can travel up to five miles, she says. So making sure those embers don’t ignite on your property is key.
When should you evacuate?
When law enforcement tells you to. “Evacuation information will most likely come from local law enforcement. So if there is an order to evacuate, it’s going to be the sheriff’s department — or whatever the local law enforcement might be — that would be making that order and then would be coming around to tell people,” Mason says. And you should have an evacuation plan in place before an emergency happens, she says.
“Get together with your family and have a plan,” she says. “Just say: ‘This is you know what we’re going to do. This is where we’re going to go. And also know your routes in and out of where your home is.” And it’s always good to have a backup route out of your neighborhood in case your route is blocked.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s not gonna happen to us.'” Mason adds. But “it’s not a matter of if, but when a wildfire will happen.” So it’s best to be prepared.
If you see a wildfire, what should you do?
“If you see something, say something. So if you see smoke, don’t assume that somebody else has called,” Mason says. “Call 911.”
And don’t bother trying to look up the phone number for the U.S. Forest Service or the Forestry Division, Mason adds. That takes too much time. After you call 911, they’ll send the information to the correct people.
What about burning weeds or leaves at home?
It’s important to know that local regulations and restrictions will dictate what you can and can’t burn. Local rules will also dictate when you can burn.
“You need to know what the local ordinances are,” Mason says. “You need to contact your local fire department and let them know that you’re going to be doing it. Even if it’s something small, it’s best to let someone know.”
But if you are allowed to burn, make sure you’re prepared, Mason says.
“People may think they have it under control. But depending on weather conditions, that can change rapidly,” Mason explains. “There is potential for a spark to get out and start a spot fire in dry grasses. So, you have to make sure that the area where you’re burning is clear — at least a minimum of 10 feet. More is better.”
“But the best thing to do is to contact your local fire department,” she adds. “They might even be able to come out and take a look at it first and to say, ‘Hey, you know, your pile is too high.'”
You probably know the drill here: First, check to make sure campfires are allowed. If they are, make sure you put out your campfire when you’re done.
“Make sure that your campfire is in a designated fire pit, or create a proper fire pit that has no debris or dry grasses around it within a 10-foot area,” Mason says. “And never leave a campfire unattended even if you’re going to go for a hike.”
“It doesn’t matter how long you’re gone,” Mason says. “There’s always potential for an ember to be picked up out of that campfire and taken to dry grasses or trees nearby. So you always need to drown your campfires with water [and] bury it with a shovel.”
And before you walk away, make sure it’s cold, she says. If you feel the heat a few inches above the put-out fire, it’s still too hot to leave. Make sure that the campfire is cold.