By Mike Beacom
The value of pre-fire planning can be witnessed this summer in New Mexico, where landscape teams – as designated by the local forest supervisor – are working together to maximize resources and keep communities informed.
In 2008, almost 14,000 acres in and around the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico were burned by the Trigo Fire. It wasn’t until after the fire was contained and the burned area emergency response (BAER) teams had packed up and left that the conservation districts and other local partners were called in to help organize post-fire relief efforts. This summer’s Dog Head Fire played out differently. Well before the fire began, local conservation districts were at the table, ready to help.
“Our Forest Supervisor Elaine Kohrman had the foresight to bring cooperating agencies to the table a few years ago,” says East Torrance Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Cheri Lujan.
In fall 2012, when updating the Cibola National Forest plan, Kohrman invited state and local agencies to join landscape teams and provide input during the process. A number of conservation districts participated in the monthly planning meetings and later helped the Forest Service organize public input sessions.
The landscape teams are now the Forest Service’s go-to partners; the results are evident in how quickly the group was able to respond to this summer’s fire season.
The Dog Head Fire struck June 14. The following evening the East Torrance and Edgewood Soil and Water Conservation Districts welcomed Governor Susana Martinez and approximately 60 landowners to the first of several daily meetings designed to keep the public informed. At the time, “most of the landowners were still evacuating and trying to keep an eye on their homes,” says Lujan. Day by day, as the fire grew, so did the districts’ audience. The fire teams provided maps and weather updates, and county commissioners and sheriff’s department representatives helped answer questions. Communication was constant.
“It’s been a pleasure working with the Forest Service and BAER teams,” says Lujan. “They have kept us in the loop since day one. It’s allowed us to carry that information to the landowners and people affected.”
Local residents also relied on social media to stay informed; close to 700 people receive several updates a day through the Dog Head Fire Facebook page. “It’s been the best thing they could have done,” says Lujan.
The fire was 61 percent contained by June 21, a week after it began. It burned close to 18,000 acres, 24 residences, and an additional 21 “minor” structures. More than 900 people assisted the firefighting effort. It will be weeks before some residents begin to rebuild, and months before final suppression costs associated with the fire are published. But Lujan already views the response effort and agency cooperation a success. “This fire has gone much smoother than the 2008 fire,” Lujan says. “With the landscape team, we already had the relationships in place. We all knew our part, we all knew what to do.”
The landscape team is now working with Kohrman’s office to evaluate the potential for post-fire flooding and begin to discuss community rehabilitation efforts. The daily meetings will continue, as the conservation districts help landowners secure financial assistance, including NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection Plan funding.