Agencies prep for fire season

By Brittney Cannon
Deputy editor
bcannon@cnjonline.com

The first day of April is getting off to a hot start with a red flag warning and howling winds, low humidity and warmer air mean fire season is just around the corner.

According to Clovis Fire Department Battalion Chief Montie Powell, the fire department prepares for fire season by watching videos, reading books and having instructors come in to teach classes on how to battle big blazes.

“We have some (firefighters) that recall (how to react) on their own experiences,” Powell said. “If the wind gets really bad, we might have extra manning, which isn’t normal. We just try to be prepared.”

According to David Kube, wildfire coordinator for the Curry County Sheriff’s Office, the county will do “fire activities,” to help spread fire safety tips and reminders.

“Mostly we’ve done radio spots or media notifications,” Kube said, “and then I put the word out to the fire department within the county to put the word out to their residents.”

Kube said that the county provides fire prevention booklets and pamphlets for residents.

A lot of their information, Kube said, comes from firewide.com, which provides tips and other information that residents can use to keep their homes safe from fires.

“I generally have some of those scattered out at the courthouse,” Kube said. “I also put those publications out at various outlying cities like Grady and Melrose.”

If a fire gets out of control, or if one is spotted, Powell said to call 911 immediately and provide an accurate direction to where the fire is.

“We judge by wind conditions how critical it may be by the time we get there,” Powell said.

According to Brent Wachter, wildfire meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, a red flag indicates gusty winds and humidity levels at 15 percent or less.

“We’re looking at fire dangers that are high, very high and extreme,” Wachter said. “Fire danger is high when there’s not a lot of green-up, and you have conditions of warm, dry and windy air mass.”

“Green-up,” is a term for green vegetation, Wachter said, which helps combat wildfires and lessens the risk of one starting.

Powell said when firemen combat wildfires, they get a lot of help from roadways and young wheat fields that are still green.

“We always try to fight the fire from the burn side, which keeps us out of danger,” Powell said. “Unless it jumps the roadway  which happens if there’s enough fire or wind — we try to stop (the fire) at the fields or roads.”

According to Powell, the biggest thing anyone can do to keep a fire from starting around their home is to keep debris and dead vegetation cleaned up and far away from your abode.

Powell also said that burning any brush, period, is not allowed in city limits at all.

“(Fire pits) are just for cooking only,” Powell said, “or you can use chimeneas for warmth.”

If you live in the county, Powell said, residents are allowed to burn debris under guidelines established by the county and fire departments.

“When there is no red flag warning, but there are favorable conditions, the stipulation is that no burning is allowed if the wind speed is over 15 mph,” said Kube. “Unless the residents can contact the county sheriff’s office and the fire department, and let us know they’re going to be burning. They also need a water supply available.”

According Wachter, residents “definitely want to avoid burning on red flag days, especially in the grass land.”

“If they were doing a ditch burn, they want to  go back out and check and make sure there’s no smoldering in the grass or hot spots,” Wachter said. “See if you feel any heat, because that could rekindle under a dry and windy day.”

Depending on conditions, any fire can get out of control in an instant, Powell said.

“If you get a small fire and get wind and fuel, it’s a major incident instantly,” Powell said. “Wind is such a big deal on any fire, but especially on wild land fires.”

Kube said once fires get to be so large, they can create their own wind, which worsens conditions and keeps the fire spreading. That was the case with the “tire fire” in 2011, Kube said.

“The wind was blowing, but when the fires get big like that, they create their own wind and heat,” Kube said. “You can get double the wind speed from a fire like that.”

Kube said in 2011, the fire spread from Melrose 22 miles to Highway 70 and engulfed 35,000 acres of land spreading over 22 miles. According to Kube, the rim of a flat tire scraped the pavement and sent sparks flying.

“We had high winds that day and it just took off,” Kube said.

The perfect storm for a wildfire, Kube said, is tall grass, low humidity and high winds.

“Mainly the high winds and low humidity,” Kube said. “Grass doesn’t even need to be that tall. Lot of times, the wind will knock power lines down, and they’ll start sparking.”

For more information on wildfire conditions and prevention, visit http://www.srh.noaa.gov/abq/.