Enchanted Circle Firefighters prepare for wildfire season

By Michelle Duregger — Staff Writer

Local and National Fire departments are mobilizing to prepare for the wildfire season. The annual Enchanted Circle Regional Fire Protection Association Meeting in Taos Monday (April 6) kicked off the local wildfire season. Fire Chiefs, volunteers and other personnel from around the area amassed for the meeting including Taos County and Moreno Valley area department officials and volunteers, and fire personnel from Taos Pueblo, Bureau of Land Management, and Carson National Forest, among others. Wildfire trainings also began in Red River April 6, continuing throughout the week and ending with live-fire training Sunday (April 12) on a ranch in Elizabethtown. The meeting on Monday allowed area departments to discuss their capabilities, the season outlook and fire-fighting resources.

The Enchanted Circle Fire Protection Association predicts a season of smaller, more manageable fires. Snow pack was “decent” according to Ray Corral Northern New Mexico Type 3 Team Incident Manager, and the prediction is for more moisture and cooler temperatures to keep things in check. “But Mother Nature holds the crystal ball,” said Corral. “We are prepared for anything.”

Chris Romo, Cimarron District New Mexico Fire Management Officer agrees, “Right now we are not banking on the mild fire season. We have a lot of carry-over fuels (dead grasses, dead trees, etc.) We are still in a drought and are treating the fire season with the highest regards.”

Angel Fire and Red River in particular have been the focus of much attention in the past years for thinning and fuel reduction efforts to protect the communities from wildfire dangers. In Angel Fire a fuel break, thinning of the forest to remove access fuels, has been completed from the south of Elliot Barker Lane to Forest Road 76. A fuel break has also been started around Taos Pines. These two areas will see more attention in the next year. “It’s a slow process, but it hasn’t fallen off the radar,” Corral said. “Angel Fire’s community is sitting pretty comfortably for fire season.”

With the outlook of a mild fire season area fire departments will be focusing on fire management rather than suppression.

“Residents may see a fire burning in the middle of the forest — but we ask that the public have patience as it is burning for a reason,” said Corral. Fire departments and forest service personnel take each fire situation case by case. “Not all fire is bad,” said Corral. “If no property, resources or human lives are at risk, then we would let the fire burn and reduce the fuels that have accumulated.”

In the past the Forest Service and fire departments in the United States focused on all suppressing fires, and that is what has left the Moreno Valley and other areas in a precarious position, according to Corral. Wildfires are a natural part of an ecosystem for eliminating the dead and diseased trees. With suppression came an accumulation of debris that is highly flammable.

Training is also under way to prepare volunteers for the needs of a wildfire. All the local departments offer their volunteers wildfire training, and departments are gearing up for the season. Red River and other departments do a annual re-qualifying of firefighters and entry-level wildland courses as well as other training opportunities.

Whether their firefighters pursue their “red card,” wildfire fighting certifications, or not doesn’t really matter to Bertges, “At least the training is there…wildfire is just as important here as structure fire training.” In the last week several area fire fighters attended an Intermediate wildfire training in Los Alamos. Saturday (April 11) Angel Fire, Moreno Valley and two departments from Mora are attending a training with the Sierra Bonita Rincon crews to familiarize themselves with the area, which is considered by state fire academy instructors to be the second worst wildland/urban-interface fire area in the state. In addition there will also be a New Mexico Forestry funded training in Vermejo Park and Raton in May.

Training is important as wildfires are significantly different to deal with than structure fires for obvious reasons. “It is very dynamic and deals with a broad area,” said Bertges. Instead of attacking the flames with water head-on, wildfires are fought indirectly, often with limited water resources. Firefighters will flank the fire and may not even be able to see flames. Structures and areas in front of the flames are prepped with fire-lines dug and prepared to protect the structures in the line of flames as well as bring an end to the flame front. A fire truck may be stationed near certain structures to ward off the flames when they arrive at the structure. Gear is also different and lighter for firefighters and crews are constantly on the move and digging trenches with a lot less protection than with an urban structure fire.

Through these training exercises and meetings, area resources have been coordinated and communication lines set in place. “For the most part our local departments are able to take care of the smaller fires,” said Bertges. For a fire that is on the ground and moving in and around the Moreno Valley, Angel Fire, Eagle Nest and Moreno Valley departments would be the first on scene according to Bertges. “We would decide from there whether to call in reinforcements based on a set of criteria. I am not afraid to call for help, I would rather call for help too early than too late. A grass fire will travel with the speed of the wind. With a 40 mph wind a ground fire will move at 40 mph.” Wildland firefighting equipment and engines are adequately spread throughout the area’s departments so that they are poised to help each other in the event of a moving wildfire.

In addition, departments around the nation are part of a tightly coordinated network that includes state and federal fire departments and wildland crews. Since Monday’s meeting communication lines locally and nationally have opened  and resource coordination has begun for the season.

According to Corral, a helicopter is positioned in Los Alamos and there are other air resources that will trickle into Albuquerque as the summer fire season progresses. Locally, each of the 18 fire departments has a wildland “Type 6” truck and extra water trucks called “tenders.” There is also one more U.S. Forest Service wildland fire engine that is staffed seven days a week and will be staged at various areas around Taos, Taos Pines, Peñasco and other areas. In addition there is a “Type 3,” organized incident management team that covers Santa Fe and the Carson National Forest and Moreno Valley area. This team, delegated by the New Mexico State Forestry Department, would come in and manage the fire incident if it grows too large for local departments to handle. In addition several departments are poised with hand crews to get where fire trucks cannot go. Red River has a 20-man hand crew available.

In addition to fire management, fire prevention is also on local departments’ minds with educational programs available for schools and other organizations. “We implement a pretty heavy prevention-through-education program in schools,” said Romo. Despite the Cimarron District’s small staff, they train and enable others to take several different programs to area schools and communities including “Kids, Cows and More”, “Ready Set Go” and “Firewise”. In Angel Fire there will be also be a Forest Health Open House May 21 at 4:30 p.m. at the Angel Fire Community Center that will deal with forest health and fire safety. More details to come in an upcoming issue.