With wildfires erupting across the state, a question on the minds of many New Mexicans is how much of the devastation was self-induced/preventable.
Santa Fe National Forest officials apologized last week for a prescribed burn northwest of Las Vegas that spiraled out of control and resulted in the Hermits Peak Fire. Pecos/Las Vegas District Ranger Steve Romero said unexpected weather caused the fire to spread outside the project boundary. What started as a prescribed burn has set over 7,000 acres ablaze. Half of this area is in the Gallinas watershed, threatening the main source of water supply to the city of Las Vegas.
Another prescribed burn spiraled out of control on April 7 in Chaves County, southeast of Roswell. Officials say a whirlwind intensified the burn, allowing it to spread and develop into an overflow fire. It took the Federal Office of Land Management a week to declare the blaze 100% contained – after burning 1,900 acres. Fortunately, no structure was threatened.
Meanwhile, the McBride Fire, the cause of which remained under investigation Friday night, continues to wreak havoc in and around Ruidoso. Tragically, an elderly couple died in their home due to the fast moving wildfire. State police said the couple attempted to evacuate on Tuesday evening and their remains were discovered on Wednesday.
As of Friday, more than 200 homes in and around Ruidoso were destroyed as the mountain range town remained under multiple evacuation orders.
The blaze, which spread to nearby Alto, began around noon Tuesday, when wind gusts reached 90 mph in the area and we had the lowest humidity levels in the country. It is important to determine the cause to try to prevent a recurrence.
The Nogal Canyon Fire, a separate blaze northwest of Ruidoso caused by a downed power line, wreaked havoc across Lincoln County, burning more than 300 acres and destroying at least half a dozen homes. About 4,500 people who live in and around this part of Ruidoso were under an evacuation order on Friday.
Elsewhere last week, the Big Hole Fire in the Bosque de Belen scorched approximately 900 acres, closing access points and access roads to the ditch banks from Los Lunas to Belen. Once again, the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said a downed power line was the cause.
New Mexico is dry. And we’re known for our springtime winds, which raises the obvious question of why federal authorities approved prescribed burns in the Santa Fe National Forest and on BLM lands in Chaves County.
Prescribed burns are essential to forest management, but we need answers about why they were done. Even if strong winds were not expected, we know how unpredictable our windy springs are.
The sad thing is that history seems to be repeating itself. In May 2000, an out-of-control prescribed burn charred 75 square miles in and around Los Alamos. The flames swept through the city and 400 families lost their homes.
There is little we can do about lightning strikes and downed power lines or the continued drought and hot temperatures that make our forests vulnerable to wildfires. It is crucial to constantly thin and remove dead falls and underbrush that feed the fires. The same goes for prescribed burns, but only in very specific circumstances.
Hopefully these wildfires will become teachable times about how we can improve our land management practices without starting wildfires out of control. In the meantime, be careful, be careful. It’s fire season in New Mexico.
NM responds; this is what we do
The people of the Ruidoso area responded with remarkable kindness and generosity.
And several organizations and groups, including the Mescalero Apache Tribe and Alamogordo Public Schools, are asking for donations to help the displaced.
Deborah Douds, executive director of the Ruidoso Valley Chamber of Commerce, says the groups were overwhelmed with so many physical donations of water, household items and clothing that they ran out of storage space.
“We are very grateful to everyone who donated the physical items, so we are only asking for cash donations at this time,” Douds told the Journal on Friday.
Monetary donations for temporary housing, demolition and salvage efforts are coordinated by the Community Foundation of Lincoln County. Donations for fire victims can be made through PayPal on the nonprofit organization’s website at www.cfolc.org. Checks can be mailed to CFLC at PO Box 2750, Ruidoso, NM, 88355. Checks should be made payable to the Community Foundation of Lincoln County, or CFLC, and include “housing funds” on the line of memo.
“Our commitment is to pay no administrative fees and every penny of these funds will go directly to fire victims in the form of grants,” said CFLC President Riker Davis. “We plan to write checks to these people as early as (April 16).”
For more information about donations or to request relief funds, contact Davis at (575) 808-0085. “Some of these people are sleeping in their cars right now,” Davis said Friday. “At this point, we have the capacity to help between 100 and 200 families who have lost their homes.”
K-Bob’s Steakhouse in Ruidoso has stepped up its free meals for firefighters and displaced families. The Ruidoso Convention Center is serving as an emergency shelter and the Otero County Fairgrounds is available to accommodate evacuated livestock.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned because it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than that of the editors.