New Mexico is getting much-needed moisture this week, but the long-range forecast for the state remains the same: below-normal precipitation, continued drought and worsening wildfire danger.
That forecast has federal and state forest managers preparing for an early start to the spring fire season.
“We are anticipating fire season to come early due to dry conditions out there, and the current weather forecast doesn’t lend itself to a lot of moisture in the coming weeks,” said Bruce Hill, public information officer for the Santa Fe National Forest.
A wildfire last week in dry grass north of Pojoaque could foreshadow what’s to come; it spread to nearly 10 acres before being contained by the Santa Fe County Fire Department. In higher elevations, the snowpack is far below normal.
The Forest Service is calling in firefighting crews two to three weeks earlier than it typically does for the spring fire season. Hot Shot crews, who are experienced firefighters, and firefighting aircraft also are being called in early, said Bill King, a fire management officer for the Santa Fe and Carson national forests.
The Carson Hot Shot crew starts March 18, and the Santa Fe crew begins work April 1, King said. A small, water-dropping helicopter will be put on contract a month early and be ready April 1.
“We are fully staffed this year,” said King, with 10 fire engines available on the Santa Fe forest and six for the Carson.
“Right now we are evaluating conditions,” he said. “We can bolster our resources as we might need them.”
Air tankers, capable of dropping large volumes of water and fire retardant, will be available earlier, as well as a heavy helicopter for water drops, but there is no firm date, King said.
King didn’t have specifics on the number of aircraft that would be available.
Fire managers are monitoring and evaluating conditions on the southern ranger districts of the Santa Fe National Forest — the Jemez and the Pecos — because they dry out faster and and get more recreational use, King said.
“The Santa Fe [forest] will dry out faster than the Carson,” he said.
Greg Hesch of the state Forestry Division said the agency also is expecting an early start to the spring wildfire season and that it could be the state’s worst in a decade.
“We are at a point where we are extremely dry,” Hesch told KRQE-TV.
The Forestry Division is training extra firefighters throughout the state, he said.
King said additional federal money could be requested if needed to fund firefighting. That request would go to the Forest Service Southwestern Regional Office in Albuquerque.
“But there might be a lot of competition [between various national forests] for those severity funds,” King said.
The budget package approved by Congress last week does not include a permanent solution to treating wildfires as disasters, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an emailed statement.
Treating wildfires as disasters would allow the use of disaster funds for firefighting and would lift the budget restrictions on firefighting funds.
“With climate change, disasters are getting bigger and happening more frequently, and wildfires are no exception,” Udall said.
“Underfunding wild-land firefighting fuels a destructive cycle, forcing us to borrow from other core programs. We need to end ‘fire borrowing,’ and finally treat wildfires in the West like we do natural disasters in other parts of the country.”