ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – If you’ve been in New Mexico during wildfire season, you know the all-too-familiar smell of smoke in the air and the sound of fire trucks racing to the scene of another New Mexico wildfire. You probably remember fires in the Jemez mountains, blazes near Ruidoso, or flames in the Albuquerque foothills in years past. But have you ever wondered what communities are at the greatest risk for fire damage?

Wildfire researchers sure have. In fact, it’s a question the U.S. Forest Service has been researching for years now.

In 2018, the U.S. Congress asked the Forest Service to create a map of the U.S. showing which communities were the most at-risk for wildfires. The latest numbers come from 2020. They combine data from several sources, such as population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, with computer simulations of wildfires. Here’s what the latest maps reveal about the potential for destructive fires in New Mexico.

Statewide Risks

Across New Mexico, on average, homes are at a greater risk of wildfire damage than in 78% of other states, the data shows. That means that for homes in populated parts of New Mexico, there is not only a relatively high likelihood of wildfires reaching homes, but that those fires are also likely to be relatively intense.

Greg Dillon, the director of the Fire Modeling Institute at the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab used the data to create risk maps. “Essentially, it’s showing us a map of where are our fire-prone landscapes in the United States and where are the ecosystems that can burn,” he says.

New Mexico’s homes are, on average, at greater risk than homes in Colorado. But at a lower risk than homes in Arizona, the data shows. Within New Mexico, of course, some communities are at greater risk than others.

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Western states tend to have relatively higher areas of wildfire risk to homes. Image: U.S. Forest Service.

Major forest areas mean major risk

“We tend to think of forests when we think of wildfires, but it’s not just forests,” Dillon says. “It’s also shrublands in California. That might be chaparral shrublands in the Southwest. In the Great Basin, it might be different kinds of sagebrush. Even certain desert scrub landscapes are seeing more fire because we have invasive grasses in some of those Southwestern ecosystems.”

New Mexico has several wildfire-prone ecosystems. Of course, forest timber can burn, especially if dry (think firewood). But grass is also a potential fuel. And some parts of the state have chaparral shrublands, which are often made of rocky terrain dotted with shrubs. Those too are potential fuel sources. In 2017, the Tiffany fire scorched over 9,000 acres of chaparral shrubland near Socorro, according to records from the Southwest Coordination Center.

Among all the ecosystems in New Mexico, the major forests generally create greater wildfire risks than the desert basins. After all, forests can be packed with fuel high and low, including both living and dead vegetation.

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Data shows that New Mexico’s forest and prairie regions have an elevated probability of wildfire. Here, darker red indicates a higher annual likelihood of wildfire. Data: U.S. Forest Service; satellite imagery from Google Earth.

This means the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico, the Lincoln National Forest in the southern portion of the state, and the Santa Fe National Forest in northern New Mexico are particularly likely to experience wildfire, the U.S. Forest Service data shows. The probability that a wildfire will burn through an area generally increases near the centers of those forests. But the edges of forested areas are still at high-risk.

Those edges of forests might make for beautiful views for homeowners. But unfortunately, areas, where developments expand into forested areas, are at an elevated risk for wildfire, the data shows.

For example, many homes in Ruidoso, New Mexico, are at higher risk because of their location. When you overlay a map of wildfire risk — including the likelihood of fire, potential intensity of fire, and potential exposure to fire — with the recent McBride fire, it’s clear that the damage could have been much worse, given the risks.

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Much of the Ruidoso community is at relatively high risk for wildfire impacts. Here, yellow indicates areas impacted by the 2022 McBride fire and red indicates areas of housing units at risk. Data: U.S. Forest Service and Southwest Area Incident Management Team; satellite imagery from Google Earth.

Ruidoso ranks relatively high in terms of wildfire risk to homes compared to other New Mexico communities. In fact, U.S. Forest Service data ranks Ruidoso’s populated areas as having a greater risk than 95% of all New Mexico communities. And at-risk homes in Ruidoso tend to be directly exposed to wildfire due to surrounding vegetation, the data shows.

At an even greater risk are communities such as Aragon, New Mexico. This sparsely populated area on the north end of the Gila Mountains has a greater wildfire risk than 98% of all New Mexico communities. In fact, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history occurred about 40 miles south of Aragon, back in 2012.

Population and risk

A relatively small amount of the state’s population lives in the highest-risk areas. But even urban areas like Albuquerque are potentially exposed to wildfires.

Albuquerque’s North Bosque is particularly at risk for impacts from wildfire, the data shows. The South Valley and far Northeast Heights are also high-risk areas.

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Around Albuquerque, wildfire risk to housing units is greatest in the North Bosque, Northeast Foothills, and South Valley. Pink indicates elevated risk. Data: U.S. Forest Service. Underlying imagery created by MRCOG and Bohannan Huston, Inc. via UNMRGIS.

The bosque, of course, is no stranger to fire. In fact, 2022 has already brought several fires to the bosque in and around Albuquerque. KRQE News 13 previously reported details of an April 18 fire near homes along Riverview Drive. And on April 20, there Simona Fire in Jarales sparked in the Valencia County bosque.

Building resiliency to reduce risk

The U.S. Forest Service didn’t just collect wildfire risk data for the fun of it. The data is intended to help communities better prepare and mitigate wildfire risks, Dillon says.

And there are specific things homeowners in at-risk areas can do. Here are some tips from Dillon and the U.S. Forest Service (more info can be found here).

  • Keep flammables away from your home. “Right up against the home, you want to make sure that you don’t have flammable materials like your woodpile,” Dillon says.
  • If possible, use fire-resistant landscaping. “Try to have nonflammable mulch around the actual structure of your home,” he says. And you might want to consider removing some limbs from trees around your house, he adds.
  • “Harden” your home. This means actually using building materials intended to keep hot embers from igniting your house. “The type of materials that you choose to build a deck with, the type of windows you have, the type of siding you have, the roof material that you have, all those things very much affect how ignitable your home is if it happens to be in the path of a wildfire,” Dillon says.

*Editor’s Note: Full citation to the wildfire risk data as follows:

Scott, Joe H.; Brough, April M.; Gilbertson-Day, Julie W.; Dillon, Gregory K.; Moran,
Christopher. Wildfire Risk to Communities: Spatial datasets of wildfire risk for populated
areas in the United States. Fort Collins, CO: Forest Service Research Data Archive.