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Forest-fire season taking on early heat

3/1/11 article from The New Mexican
Forest-fire season taking on early heat
Moderate-to-high rating could increase if weather predictions prove true
By Staci Matlock | The New Mexican |3/1/2011
In the first two months this year, 83 wildfires torched more than 85,000 acres of grasslands, two hay barns and several buildings around New Mexico, according to state forestry officials.

Meanwhile, fire danger in the Santa Fe National Forest this week is rated moderate to high. And the fire season is just getting under way.

The fire rating is based on a national system and uses data from national forest weather stations that measure temperature, humidity, wind speed and moisture in vegetation.

At this time last year, the Santa Fe National Forest had a low risk of wildfires.

Robert Morales, a fire-staff officer for the Santa Fe and Carson national forests entering his 34th season as a wildland firefighter, remembers when a 10,000-acre fire was considered a big one.

"Since 1986, the fires have grown a lot larger around the nation," he said. "Now a 10,000-acre fire isn't unusual. We have ones 80,000 to 100,000 acres."

Denser forests, a trend toward drought and slightly higher temperatures "have all contributed to larger fires," Morales said.

New Mexico's wildfire risk this year is likely to increase if weather and fire predictions prove true. A mid-February report by the National Weather Service Drought Prediction Center and Tuesday's Drought Map show the southern third of New Mexico in severe drought into May, with moderate drought in the rest of the state.

Fire crews are struggling to complete prescribed burns to reduce the risks of a human- or naturally ignited wildfire becoming large and unmanageable. But they have to wait for the right conditions to burn — Santa Fe National Forest postponed several prescribed burns this week because the conditions weren't correct.

Prescribed burns are planned for today in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed and Gallinas Canyon near Las Vegas.

In Chaves County, the Enterprise wildfire — which started over the weekend and still is under investigation — burned 64,900 acres across a 40-mile swath near Maljamar before firefighters brought it under control. The Rufus fire started near the same area Tuesday.

The Dog Canyon Fire was human-caused and burned more than 3,400 acres near Carlsbad.

Even when the fire risk is moderate, it doesn't take much to start a blaze, said Lawrence Lujan, a Santa Fe National Forest spokesman.

Now is the time for people living near forests to clear away debris and prune back vegetation on their property, making it easier to protect their homes from wildfire. "No matter the outlook, homeowners living near the forest are responsible for fireproofing their home and property," Lujan said.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com.

STAY IN THE KNOW
  • For more on how to minimize health problems from smoke, contact the New Mexico Department of Health at 1-888-878-8992.

Consult these agencies and departments for information during the fire season:
  • Santa Fe National Forest Public Affairs Office, 505-438-5321
  • Santa Fe National Forest Fire Management Office, 1-877-971-3473
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