It’s hardly news that New Mexico is in the grip of drought, creating potential for catastrophic wildfires this spring and summer.
Apparently the period from April 2020 to March is the driest on record for New Mexico, according to information released this week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
Driest ever, for a period dating back to 1895 when records started being kept. Whipping winds aren’t helping matters, blowing dust and potentially causing any spark to catch fire and cause destruction. New Mexico isn’t alone. The fire outlook for 2021 is bleak across the West.
That means governments and property owners need to prepare.
In Santa Fe, particular attention is being directed to the wildland-urban interface areas, where homes back up against forests and risk is particularly high. Both city and county officials focus on educating property owners on how to create defensible spaces on their land and helping people be prepared should the worst occur.
Santa Fe National Forest officials say extreme drought conditions in the area have left trees and brush dried out. Even the few recent spring snowfalls that added life to the end of the ski season have failed to improve conditions. Significant amounts of moisture are needed to alleviate the danger. And moisture, it seems, may not be in the clouds.
To be ready, the city of Santa Fe has hired seasonal workers — wildland operators and sawyers, the people trained to use equipment such as chain saws. They are ready should a fire threaten our area. They are necessary. If they aren’t needed here, they can travel to assist other cities where wildfires are burning, with the city reimbursed for their time.
Over at Santa Fe County, officials have updated a Community Wildfire Protection Plan used to find and mitigate wildfire hazards. For individuals, the county has a Ready, Set, Go plan on its website, designed to encourage people to prepare for fire.
According to the plan, some 80 percent of homes lost to wildland fires could have been saved if owners had implemented safe practices. (More details at wildlandfireRSG.org.)
For people within wildlife-urban interface areas, creating a defensible space is most important. Property owners need to create a buffer zone around the house or other buildings, while removing weeds, brush and vegetation. That’s true in homes not up against the forest; we learned from recent California fires the blaze can spread throughout towns.
It’s recommended people don’t place woodpiles up against the walls of houses or sheds and that they keep propane tanks at a distance — again, the idea is to keep fuels away from homes to reduce the likelihood of structures burning.
But if and when a fire does threaten, experts warn people to be prepared. That means having a family disaster plan. How will you meet up after evacuating? How will you care for animals? How will family members communicate?
Practice using fire extinguishers. Know how to shut off gas, electric and water if necessary. Plan and practice different escape routes, and preprogram devices such as a GPS with the multiple routes in case of low visibility. Have a battery-operated radio ready to keep up with what’s happening in case your internet crashes (which it likely will).
Be sure to have an emergency supply kit and keep one in a vehicle, with written emergency contact numbers inside. Kit items include adequate water, food, first-aid supplies, a flashlight and batteries, extra car keys, medicine, glasses and other necessities. (For the complete list, go to redcross.org/get-help.)
Most of all, talk about the possibility of disaster and discuss what your family will do in case a fire threatens. Preparation matters. Leaving quickly is important for saving lives. But before you have to leave, do all you can to prepare. Especially in a time when much of the state is in extreme drought and the outlook remains dry and dusty.