Local fire officials urge preparation for fire season

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By Carol A. Clark

Winds blowing on an already dried out county landscape have fire officials concerned.

“The conditions we’re seeing right now could start our fire season as early as this month,” said Los Alamos Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Doug Tucker. “We’re trying to prepare folks and not scare anybody but it’s lining up to be a severe wild fire season.”

Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal Michael Thompson agreed.

“The Cerro Grande Fire started in May when conditions were very dry,” he said. “Right now some of our northern faces have a little snow left, but not much. This week we are supposed to get more moisture but then it’s predicted that conditions will dry out again.”

Tucker belongs to the Interagency Wildfire Team comprised of fire experts from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the forestry and parks departments, and emergency response personnel.

“We’re all paying close attention to the weather at this point,” Tucker said of his team members. “We’re all looking at doing our wildfire training early this year in preparation for what looks to be an earlier fire season.”

Tucker and Thompson want to alert the public to the dry conditions and encourage them to prepare defensible space around their properties right now.

“It’s a good time to get out in the yard and make a defensible space around the home right now and also be vigilant about putting out campfires completely,” Tucker said. “We also ask the community to be vigilant to any fire threats and to call us quickly if they smell smoke.”

Thompson described the fire department’s staffing levels as better than in year’s past.

“We’ve staffed up with 37 firefighters and that’s seven more than in years past,” he said. “That gives us another medic and fire engine at Station 3 in White Rock.”

Station three focuses its efforts on the community of White Rock as well as the laboratory. With increased staff, the station has 10 firefighters on hand at all times, two medics and two fire engines, Thompson said.

Because all LAFD firefighting personnel are crossed-trained in wildland and structural firefighting and emergency medical services, Thompson said they can be re-directed as needed throughout the county.

“With our response needs for LANL, we are staffed up well,” he said.

Firefighters are training and preparing now for the fire season.

“As with every year, we go through refresher training with our crews to make sure we’re prepared,” Thompson said. “This year we’re doing some saw classes to remove fuels. We’re probably in better shape because of the Cerro Grand Fire and all the efforts that have been put into play.”

LAFD is prepared with the proper equipment for whatever eventuality this fire season brings because of the additional storage capacity at Station 3 and Station 4 for the department’s tenders and other firefighting equipment, he said.

While a small fire caused by an overheated transformer on Trinity Drive recently didn’t spread quickly and allowed it to be extinguished by firefighters, that’s not been the case in other parts of the state.

Melrose Fire Chief Kenny Jacobs has a one-word answer for what eastern New Mexico looks like heading into the windy season: brown.

Jacobs and other fire officials around the state are worried about the usual spring combination of wind, hot weather and dry conditions.

There’s a litany of what this year has already seen. A human-caused fire Wednesday burned thousands of acres of mostly grassland near Picacho.

On Tuesday, a blaze sparked by a burning trash pit over dry grass ignited near Melrose and spread across 300 acres before it was stopped.

The Melrose area also has had roadside several fires, caused by people flicking cigarettes out of car windows.

On Friday, nearly the entire state was under wind advisories or red flag warnings. A red flag warning means critical fire conditions are occurring or are imminent.

Bernalillo County commissioners on Thursday banned smoking, campfires and open burning in the bosque along the Rio Grande and other portions of the county.

Similar Stage 1 restrictions went into effect Wednesday for the Kiowa and Rita Blanca national grasslands near Clayton in northeastern New Mexico and go into effect Monday in the Mountainair ranger district of central New Mexico’s Cibola National Forest.

No measurable precipitation fell at the official weather station at Albuquerque’s airport this January or February‚ it’s the first time that’s happened since the start of record-keeping in 1892, said Ed Polasko, hydrologist for the National Weather Service.

“Up and down the Rio Grande Valley and across the south we’re seeing areas of extreme dryness in the first two months of the year,” he said. “Even some places not normally associated with dry conditions are suffering.”

The Lincoln National Forest began posting “high fire danger” signs last month.

“Fire warnings for moisture levels in Los Alamos County currently low to moderate,” Thompson said.

It’s not unusual in the spring to have dry grass, winds and human-caused fires that grow large.

“The dryness is due to La Nina, colder-than-normal surface water temperature in the Pacific,” Polasko said.

The wild card, Maxwell said, is whether New Mexico will get spring rain and snow that would have a major impact on the fire season.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.