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Conditions prompt restrictions

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By Tris DeRoma

Combine drought, high winds, low humidity, high temperatures, and you get a lot of nervous fire officials. This week, the county, as well as the Los Alamos Fire Department issued “stage one” fire restrictions in light of these factors present in the weather forecast. 

It was these types of conditions that led to the devastating Las Conchas and Cerro Grande fires, and officials are hoping the public will get the message. 

According to the Los Alamos Fire Department, the following restrictions are now in effect:

• Building, maintaining, attending or using an open fire, campfire, charcoal or wood stove on all Los Alamos County lands. (See Exemption 1)

• Smoking is prohibited except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least 3-feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials.

LAFD Deputy Chief Justin Grider said people should not be too alarmed by the fire restrictions; it’s just one of those things people need to understand about living in Northern New Mexico.

“When we implement stage one fire restrictions what we’re trying to do is get ahead of the fire season,” Grider said. “Even though we’ve got cloudy skies right now and relative humidity is up ... next week we will be back up to very high to extreme fire conditions.”

Kerry Jones, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, recently came up from Albuquerque for a meeting of emergency management officials to tell everyone just what this fire season is going to look like. Though no one could say for sure, he did remind his audience that New Mexico is in year three of a severe drought, one of the main factors needed for a major wildfire. 

“Ninety eight percent of the state is in severe or worse drought; it’s the highest number in the nation,” Jones said. He also added that the state is experiencing the second driest drought period since 1957.

When asked how long the drought is going to last, he said about seven to 10 years, based on conversations he’s had with his colleagues and research. He also said that areas like Las Vegas (N.M.) for example are now in a precipitation deficit in comparison to where the moisture levels were last year. Jones did not have a statistics for Los Alamos, just Las Vegas and Eastern New Mexico.

The other factor is wind. While Los Alamos has had some recent wind events, he said they should start dying down by the middle of May, which, of course is good. Not only does wind spread fire, it also tends to cancel out any good the precipitation does by drying out vegetation, he said. 

But, Jones also cautioned, that doesn’t necessarily mean with the lack of wind Los Alamos is out of the woods when it comes to fire danger.

“It would certainly bring down the critical component of fire danger, but it doesn’t remove the risk,” he said. 

Phil Taylor, emergency coordinator for Los Alamos County, invited Jones to the meeting, and pretty much predicted what he was going to say.

“There’s just no way to put a happy face on this,” Taylor said. “We can hope it’s going to rain and have a normal monsoon season, but I’m not betting the ranch on it, and we certainly aren’t betting the town’s safety on it. Those restrictions are in keeping with a likely scenario. 

Given the reality, I think it would be irresponsible in not implementing these common sense measures to try and protect the community. We’re just trying to save lives and property.”