Officials brace for fire season

By Thomas Garcia: Freedom New Mexico

Firefighters and emergency management teams across eastern New Mexico are preparing for a disaster many believe is just one careless mistake away.

All ingredients are in place in eastern and northern New Mexico for an active and potentially dangerous wildfire season, fire officials said.

“You just have to drive down the road and you can see dry state and private grasslands,” said Lt. Mike Golden of the Portales Fire Department.

Golden said an extreme fuel load, drought conditions and high winds like those that pounded the area Saturday are the right combination to produce a large wildfire.

Most of the eastern third of the state is under a red flag warning.

“Any time drought conditions continue over a period of time, it produces a great amount of concern for wildfires,” said Ray Westerman, chief for Clovis Fire District.

“They can be very fast moving with large fuel loads, that can take over one department’s capabilities rapidly.”

Clovis and Portales are taking precautions to ensure readiness.

Westerman said eight cadets from the Clovis Fire Department and two members of the Portales Fire Department completed a Wild Land class last week.

The class is part of the 12-week cadet program and a necessary component for firefighters to maintain their Firefighter I and Firefighter II state certification, Westerman said.

Westerman said the class covers the behavior, characteristics and techniques of fighting wildfires. The many variables of a wildfire are reviewed — weather (humidity, wind, and moisture), fuel loads and topography.

“A fire in open range behaves a lot different than a structure fire,” Westerman said. “The class also (specifically) covers fighting wildfires in eastern and northern New Mexico.”

The danger is real if history is any indicator.

On Nov. 30, 2005, high winds on a red flag day helped spread a wildfire from the Melrose Bombing Range to surrounding properties. The blaze burned about 27,000 acres of rangeland, forcing the evacuation of 100 families from their homes in Floyd.

It took 200 firefighters from 14 fire departments and the state forestry department some 19 hours to fight, control and extinguish that wildfire.

Golden said a large part in reducing fires throughout the area is residents being proactive in fire prevention.

“A lit cigarette, a hot catalytic converter and burning trash are just a few of the things that can produce a wildfire,” Golden said. “

Mike Cherry, Tucumcari Fire Chief, said that even a controlled burn can easily get out of control and spread to neighboring properties.

“If you have a controlled burn that get outs of control and causes damage you can be liable for the damages and cost of fighting that fire,” Cherry said.

The approaching storm season is another wildfire concern for area fire departments.

“Dry lightning, which is lightning that strikes before … (rain) … can spark a wildfire,” Cherry said. “New Mexico has a high number of lightning strikes with many of them in rural areas.”

In Portales, Golden said residents can help notify the fire departments of any fires started by lightning, helping prevent a small fire from developing into a large roaming fire.

With drought conditions persisting in New Mexico, the different fire agencies are also making sure they have sufficient water to fight wildfires throughout the region.

“Many of our surrounding fire agencies have a stored water supply for fighting fires,” Golden said. “Each department has their own resources to fight fires and if needed, the surrounding agencies offer mutual aid.

Westerman said the Clovis Fire Department has responded to assist calls from Portales Fire Department, and they have also received assistance from that department in the past.

“We have a great working relationship with Roosevelt County Fire Departments,” Westerman said. “Having the mutual aid agreement helps to prevent any department from being overwhelmed by a fire.”

Cherry said Quay County’s different fire districts have a similar mutual aid agreement to assist each other with fires. They also have developed working relations with the Texas Panhandle fire departments.

“Forming a good working relationship with the Panhandle’s fire departments made perfect sense, since we are so close to the Texas border,” Cherry said. “Fire does not recognize property lines or state borders.”