Fire season may start early

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Wildfire > Storm will hardly put a dent into the fire forecast

By Tris DeRoma

Don’t let this weekend’s weather fool you; there’s a high probability that there will be wildfires this year, and they may be coming early. Fire season in New Mexico usually starts in late March and ends in June, with the coming of the monsoons.
According to the National Weather Service’s New Mexico office in Albuquerque, this year’s snow season has been the worst on record for the past five years. According to meteorologist Brian Guyer, precipitation levels in the Jemez Basin have only been only at 20 percent the normal level of snow water. To put that perspective, snow water levels during the Las Conchas fire in 2011 were at 52 percent.
“Generally what we look for to slow the fire season is a good snowpack,” Guyer said. “Since we have not had hardly any snow in that region, that opens up the opportunity for the fire season to start earlier.”
While Guyer was glad to see this weekend’s weather system, he said that will not change the wildfire forecast much.
“There will be periodic weather systems that can delay the wildfire activity for a few days or perhaps a week, but if you don’t have regular, more timely weather systems moving across the area then you’re just going to continue to have deteriorating conditions.”
Los Alamos County’s Emergency Management Coordinator Phil Taylor agreed with that assessment.
“We might have these little pocket of moisture that offset these dry, drought-like conditions we’re having, but the overarching position is going to be hot, dry drought-like weather, so be prepared to respond accordingly,” he said.
“We are not going to change or lessen our preparedness posture. We are preparing for the worst, yet hoping for the best.”
Los Alamos Emergency Management is a member of the Interagency Wildfire Management Team, which also includes the regional fire departments, Bandelier National Park officials, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other organizations.
According to LANL’s public information officer, Kevin Roark, training for wildfires takes place throughout the year, regardless of what the future conditions turn out to be.
“We are ready to ramp up early for this year’s fire season due to the extreme drought and dry conditions. Like everyone, we continue to hope for some moisture as springtime approaches,” he said.
“We¹ve worked hard to build strong relationships with both internal and external emergency responders. We use training exercises to build on those relationships. We practice with the Los Alamos Fire Department and with other agencies throughout the year.”
According to Justin Grider, deputy chief with the Los Alamos Fire Department, preparation within their own department has also already begun, even though specific data on what to expect won’t be in until early March.
Preparation has included vehicle checkups and refresher courses on wildfire management for personnel. They are also monitoring area conditions by foot and road and will be doing flyovers soon.
“On top of that, we are identifying areas for future mitigation,” he said, adding that they are also working with their Interagency Wildfire Management Team partners on what type of message they are going to put out to the public once they’ve crunched the data in early March.
“We don’t make these decisions in a silo; were teaming up with our partners making sure we’re putting out the same message,” Grider said.
Grider said now would be a good time for the public to start thinking about the season. “People can’t let their guard down, even today. It rained yesterday (Thursday) but the winds are up again today, and it’s drying out the vegetation just as fast as the snow and rain comes in,” Grider said.