New Mexico Prepares For Wildfire Season

Updated: 04-25-2006 11:18:03 AM

Albuquerque Tribune

GLORIETA - A few days after the Cerro Grande Fire slammed through Los Alamos in 2000, Maureen Costello stood in her wooded backyard almost 50 miles away and started counting.

"They were saying that you shouldn't have more than 50 trees per acre. I stood here and was like one, two, three-four-five - and I had only gotten through a little part," she said.

Costello, who lives on 12.5 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest, knew she had to get busy. Immediately.

She has spent uncountable hours since then sawing, chopping, pulling and hauling out trees and brush in the hope that what happened to 403 families and 235 structures in New Mexico's worst fire won't happen to her. Her efforts - and those of her neighbors in 53 other homes in Glorieta - make the part of her forest village known as Glorieta Estates a firewise community. The designation means the group has worked together to reduce fire fuels in the area, to make sure firefighters can reach their homes in a blaze, to plan for the worst.

It also helps groups get funding for fire-prevention activities, like forest thinning and wood chipping.

"I think we're turning and facing the danger," said Neal Schaeffer, a resident who assessed the risks confronting Glorieta Estates.

"We have a really serious threat. With the nature of our topography, a firestorm could destroy an entire community," he said.

Schaeffer, a former firefighter who once parachuted into burning forests but now works for the state, said a big part of preparing for a fire is understanding it.

"A house burns when the fire's path includes the house," he said. "You have to change the path."

Costello and Schaeffer's village north of Santa Fe isn't alone. Other firewise communities in the state include the Hyde Park Estates and Aztec Springs in Santa Fe County; the greater eastern Jemez Wildland/Urban Interface; the Mescalero Apache Tribe near Ruidoso and the village of Ruidoso.

And in places like Glorieta, surrounded by ponderosa pines, juniper and piñon, those types of plans are critical, especially because many rural communities have just one road in and out.

"If we had an event the size of Cerro Grande, we'd need many hundreds of (volunteer firefighting) members and engines," said John Wheeler, spokesman and assistant Santa Fe County fire chief. "We need to rely on communities like Hyde Park and Glorieta." Especially this year. "We're staring down the barrel of a season that looks like 2000 or 2002," he said. "We've got a lot of fuel on the ground, and it's a super-dry season that we think is going to be bad." When fire strikes, the firefighters' first goal is to prevent loss of life. Protecting property comes second. That means residents have to prepare as much as possible, he said.

"Our greatest success is going to be a community that's cognizant of the problem," Wheeler said.

The work to ward off flames isn't limited to thinning trees or having an evacuation plan, however. Just this spring, Costello got someone to carve a dirt driveway all the way around her two-story home, which is almost three miles from the nearest paved road and about six miles from I-25.

"The fact that they can get trucks up here might save my house," the homeowner said.

Before those trucks can get to her house, however, they need to fill up with water. The closest place to do that is across I-25, near the Glorieta Conference Center.

"We don't have fire hydrants up here," Costello said.

The situation in Glorieta is much like many parts of the county, Wheeler said, and one reason the county has embarked on a TV ad campaign aimed at educating residents about this year's fire potential.

Apart from her physical surroundings, Costello's attitude about the forest changed since Cerro Grande and the Viveash Fire, another northern New Mexico blaze that scorched 28,800 acres in 2000.

"It used to be that I couldn't cut down a live tree. I thought that was the worst thing possible," she said.

Not anymore.


Getting your community ready for a fire:

There are seven steps communities must take to become recognized as "firewise." They include assessing the area's fire danger and creating a plan to reduce and deal with that threat. For specific steps, visit