Too many fires start with simple mistakes.
Like burning trash or debris from cleaning the acequia on a day that’s just a little too windy. Some fires are quickly snuffed out. But others grow into all their power, turning into monsters that sweep through overstocked forests and homes in the foothills.
Fire is an ever present threat for communities in the “wildland-urban interface” (the WUI, or places like Gallina Canyon, El Salto or Pot Creek where whole communities are built into the lower reaches of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains). And WUI is an ever present concern in the West because, regardless of the debate about building homes in fire-prone forests, the vast majority of development in states like New Mexico in the coming decades is expected to happen in the WUI.
Three decades ago, Firewise was started to help those communities take responsibility for “hardening” their homes against wildfire. It’s grown into a program with national scope. Nearly 1.5 million people in 40 states live in a Firewise community. As of this month, six communities in Taos County are Firewise certified.
If fire was a big deal when Firewise was created over 30 years ago, today that concern is magnified by multitudes. The federal budget to fight wildfire eclipsed all other programs in the U.S. Forest Service last year. At the same time, big fires like the one in Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains are burning longer into the year.
The fires of 21st century are the handiwork of the staunch no-burn policy of the federal government over the last 100 years.
“The Southwest has evolved with fire for thousands of years. It’s just in the past century we’ve been suppressing it. And much to our mistake,” said Chris Coté, Taos County WUI coordinator and Latir Volunteer Fire Department chief.
Forests floors piled up with small wood, dead trees and decades worth of dry, brittle limbs. “The forests burn differently now — catastrophically,” Coté said.
Land mangers are trying to get forests back to a natural fire regimen so that when the flames do come, they burn at low temperatures and low to the ground, passing by houses and other structures.
“It’s up to us to harden our homes,” Coté said.
When Firewise got started, it largely focused on educating the masses about the impacts of wildfire on communities in the WUI and used strategies targeted to individual homeowners. In 2002, the program was broadened so the whole community could “pick themselves up by their bootstraps with little outside help,” Coté said.
That forest-bound neighbors have to take ownership over the defense of their property isn’t a new concept for folks in the county. Natica Dahlkamp of Taos Canyon grew up visiting the home her parents built off the highway. “We always thought — knew — we had to do it ourselves,” she said.
But for other folks (the recent transplants from more water- and resource-rich locales) have to learn what it means to live in the forest.
“We moved here from St. Louis where there’s a fire house that’s professionally managed every eight blocks,” said Irene Niemeier of Valle Escondido. “I had no concept or appreciation of what it all entailed,” she said.
“On any given day, if a station has 12 active firefighters, two might be sick and two out of town and two are at work when the fire breaks out. That means you may have access to three to six people. They may not be able to round it up and get there before your house is a cinder,” Niemeier added.
In Taos County, 13 volunteer fire departments serve all the communities outside of the town of Taos. And across the U.S., 85 percent of fire departments run on volunteers, according to Firewise.
Add to that the complexity of small roads that are hard to get a fire truck in or out of and the calculus of Firewise starts to make a lot of sense.
El Salto was the first Taos County community to get on board with Firewise. They achieved certification about five years ago after assembling a core team of organizers, thinning their properties and planning for evacuations in case of emergencies. But it all starts with education.
A hot ember from a wildfire can travel more than a mile in the right conditions, meaning owners have to prep their homes so they won’t go up in flames should one of those flying, smoldering bits of ash land in the yard.
In fact, most homes that burn in wildfires are put in jeopardy because a flying ember ignites a flammable roof or debris (think twigs and dry leaves) in gutters, on porches, under decks and near the side of the house.
So to fight fires before they ever break out, Firewise communities shore up the “defensible space” by strategically cleaning up debris and flammable materials around the house.
Firewood and propane ought to be stored away from the home, not right up against it. Flammable patio furniture has to be dealt with. Tree limbs within five feet of the house should be cut. And dry grass and weeds against the house are a definite no-no. Bigger fixes, like installing a nonflammable roof, can also go a long way toward hardening a house against wildfire.
But prepping a community against wildfire takes hard work year after year. Gambel oaks, for example, will grow in thick stands and have to be cut down and rooted out every season.
All that thinning work, along with routine yard and acequia cleaning, creates a lot of debris. Firewise communities get access to wood chippers and Dumpsters a couple times a year thanks to partnerships between the county, federal agencies and the electric co-op.
Firewise communities are all different. Some are like Valle Escondido, which is almost exclusively residential with plenty of vacant lots and seasonal houses. Others are places like Taos Ski Valley where a big partner (the corporation) plays a significant role in wildfire defense.
Pot Creek, with only about 40 residents, is both the newest and smallest community to get Firewise certified.
As Coté said, the easiest way to get a community thinking and talking about wildfire defense is to piggyback off of other groups — like the ditch or mutual domestic — because at the end of the day it has to be a community effort.
If your property is as fireproof as possible but your next door neighbor (an absentee landowner, let’s say) is not, your house is still at risk. “Your neighbor’s problem is your problem, too,” he said.
But once neighbors do band together, there are opportunities to do meaningful work with real impacts.
Firewise communities have access to wildfire specialists and professional land managers, landscape design ideas and information about how a large-scale fire is likely to behave based on the most recent wildfire science.
Actually getting fire insurance on a home in a fire-prone area has been a challenge in most of these communities. Recently, USAA (an insurance company) announced that all homes in New Mexico Firewise communities would automatically get a discount on their policy.
And those communities also have the chance to go out for bigger pots of money to thin larger tracks of land. (Coté estimates it costs between $2,000 and $2,500 for a contractor to thin an acre).
Just as Firewise grew from individual homeowners to whole communities, fire planning in Taos County is broadening even more.
Many of the Firewise organizers are part of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, a collaboratively created document meant get the whole county signed onto a comprehensive wildfire strategy. And the Rio Grande Water Fund is putting a landscape strategy into action by thinning vast tracks of federal and tribal land in key parts of the Taos Valley watershed.
But as with fire departments, ditches, mutual domestics and community centers, Firewise communities must have new volunteers to keep the momentum going.
For more information, visit firewise.org or email Coté at latircoté@gmail.com.