Firewise events look at safety

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The Socorro County Firewise committee met Feb. 6 to discuss the Firewise program and upcoming events, especially the Firewise workshops for the public scheduled in March and April.

The first Firewise workshop is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 9 at the fire station in Abeytas.

The county Firewise committee comprises county emergency services staff and representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and State Forestry Division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

The Socorro County Commission, during its regular meeting Jan. 22, approved a resolution certifying the county will use Secure Rural Schools Act Title III funds in the amount of $77,000 for the Firewise program, according to the commission’s agenda packet. Firewise Communities is a nationally recognized program that shows homeowners how to increase their home’s chance of surviving a wildfire, including techniques in home siting, construction and landscaping.

During an interview after the Firewise meeting, Fred Hollis, county fire marshal and emergency services administrator, said Firewise helps people understand how they can protect their homes from wildfires. He said this is the third year Socorro County has conducted Firewise workshops. Before Firewise, the county was doing Community Wildfire Protection Plan, or CWPP, workshops to educate the public about wildfires.

Ken Wolf, county deputy fire marshal, said the Firewise workshops are mainly held at the fire stations in each district of the county.

“It gives a chance for the fire department to kind of show off their equipment,” Wolf said. “And they usually provide a meal. They’ll grill hot dogs or some hamburgers for the folks.”

Wolf said the county emergency services department is working on a PowerPoint presentation to share with the public at the workshops. The PHI medical helicopter, always a crowd pleaser, is also expected to fly in for the workshops.

Wolf said the workshops will also have representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service providing information, as well as Smokey Bear and Sparky the Fire Dog circulating through the crowd.

All the Firewise workshops are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and all but one are held at fire stations. Hollis said the Socorro FunFest is the only workshop not held at a fire station, but at Clark Field in Socorro. The FunFest is April 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

In addition to the FunFest and the March 9 Abeytas workshop, other workshops are scheduled for March 16 in Midway, March 23 in Magdalena, April 6 in Hop Canyon, April 13 in San Antonio and April 20 in Veguita.

Wolf said property owners need to keep fuel out of the home ignition zone. He said most fires start from embers touching on flammables, not from actual flames encroaching on the property. Embers can travel up to a mile on the winds.

One Firewise brochure recommends creating a fuel-free area within three to five feet of the home’s perimeter. Then from five feet to at least 30 feet out, the brochure recommends residents thin and space vegetation; remove dead leaves and needles; prune shrubs and tree limbs; and keep areas around decks, sheds, fences and swing sets clear of debris and vegetation.

Hollis noted many houses in the county have weeds grown up around them, often right up to the structures themselves. He said the summer before last, two or three houses in the area east of RAKS burnt down because of a wildfire rushing through the weeds.

“People say a wildfire isn’t going to burn any houses in the city,” Hollis said. “Well, it can.”

Hollis said residents need to create a defensible space around their home, then “harden” the home itself, meaning make it more fire resistant. Hollis stressed people should prevent any buildup of pine needles, leaves and other materials in their rain gutters, on their decks and around other areas close to the home. Embers catch the materials — and potentially the home — on fire.

Hollis noted the wind most often comes from the west, blowing dead vegetation and other flammable debris into various nooks and crannies on a property. If a wildfire starts, its embers will blow in the same direction — and end up in the same nooks and crannies of the unkempt property, where devastation can start.

“But if you keep the stuff out, then when the embers blow in they don’t have anything to catch on and they go out,” Hollis said.

Residents can also harden their homes by using fire-resistant materials in the home’s construction — especially the roof.

Wolf would like to see home builders utilize Class A roofing materials in home construction and roof repair.

“Seventy percent of fires start on the roof,” Wolf said.

Hollis added the deck is another area fires frequently start since garbage and debris frequently accumulate on, around and under them. Wolf pointed out an ember can smolder in a pile of debris under a deck for hours, even days, before a person notices the danger.

“Once the wildfire is over, it’s gone, you’re relaxed, you go to bed that night,” Wolf said, “then boom, you wake up and your house is on fire.”

Hollis noted there aren’t enough firetrucks in the county to protect all the homes that could be threatened by some wildfires. But if the homeowners prepare with Firewise techniques, they increase their chances that a fire will burn past their property without devastating it.

“Then we can go back after the fire goes by and put out the small flames around there,” Hollis said.

Wolf said Firewise methods, once applied, can significantly decrease the chance of a home burning up in a wildfire.

“We’re looking at a victory of one,” Wolf said. “If we can save one home by doing this, that’s our goal.”

Hollis said the county has spent its Title III Firewise money wisely since tapping into the funding stream in 2009. The county bought the equipment it needs within the first couple of years, such as a wood chipper to grind fire fuels into life-giving mulch. He said now that they have the equipment on hand, they can keep doing the Firewise program even if funding becomes unavailable for it in the future.