Photo by Eytan Krasilovsky

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Community members, wildfire professionals, land owners, land managers and non-governmental organizations gathered for two days in Taos, New Mexico, April 2-3 for the annual New Mexico Wildland Urban Interface Summit. This year’s Summit, titled, “Creating Fire Adapted Communities,” was dedicated to the 37 fallen wildland firefighters in 2013, and brought together more than 150 people from around the state.

Initially the Summit took place every other year. However, since the extreme fire seasons of 2011 – 2013, it is now an annual event led by Joy Esparsen of the New Mexico Association Counties through a long-standing partnership with the Bureau of Land Management. Supporting them is a planning team heavily supported by our State Forestry Division, along with representatives from the USDA Forest Service, the New Mexico State Land Office, the New Mexico Watershed Health Office and the Forest Guild. This team worked on the agenda, speakers, session topics, field trips and logistics.

Day 1

Because this year’s event was focused on creating fire adapted communities (FAC), The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network director Lynn Decker was our keynote speaker. She inspired everyone with a presentation on rethinking our relationship to fire, finding strength in our partnerships and collaboration, and integrating science, cultural knowledge and adaptive learning to effect change and realize both community and ecosystem resilience.

Representing the New Mexico hub of the FAC Learning Network, I presented on:

  • What is a fire adapted community?
  • Where did that concept come from?, and
  • What steps can communities, wildland fire professionals and land managers take to safely co-exist with fire?

Also on the first day were sessions on how to prepare for the crisis and chaos of a wildfire from a public information officer’s perspective and how to update, evaluate and keep your Community Wildfire Protection Plan a living document.

Then the group traveled 45 minutes into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the resort Village of Angel Fire. At the Ski Angel Fire Conference Center, Mark Meyers, forester for the New Mexico State Land Office, and I provided an overview of the October 2013 prescribed fire training exchange we convened in the Angel Fire wildland-urban interface zone (see a presentation about the event.) This week-long exchange was modeled after the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange Program (TREX) pioneered by the Fire Learning Network, and we benefited greatly from their guidance and support.

After a lively question-and-answer period, we traveled 5 miles to the controlled burn site to look at a ponderosa pine burn unit and an adjacent dry mixed conifer burn unit. The participants were met on-site by Herman Vigil, owner of a local forest restoration business, whose crews both thinned the forests and were an integral part of the controlled burn operations. Herman relayed the lessons he learned from being part of the complete restoration process, and how he is now implementing those lessons nearby with an adapted thinning prescription. We also heard from Moreno Valley Black Lake Station Fire Chief Bob Coss on the importance of communication and how he integrated his resources into the burn operations. Summit participants had many questions, ranging from logistics and politics to ecology. NRG Consulting’s Rich Graeber was on-site as well. His Durango, Colorado-based company provided burn boss, safety and logistics for the TREX.

The next stop was the southern boundary of the state trust land block where it bounds private property with homes. Due to proximity to homes and a power line, slash in this forest restoration treatment area is being burned on-site in an air curtain burner. With the air curtain on, and with no visible smoke, Rich demonstrated how air curtains are one tool available for communities where slash management and broadcast and pile burning present their own challenges.

Photo credit: Xavier Anderson

Air curtain demonstration. Photo credit: Xavier Anderson

The air curtain demonstration generated a lot of excitement, as well as concern over emissions and permit requirements. Smoke management officer for New Mexico, Claudia Standish, and a representative from the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau were on hand to provide guidance on emissions regulations and air curtains. Day 1 was capped by a networking session with an open bar and some excellent Taoseño food.

Day 2

The morning of Day 2 was dominated by concurrent sessions by 15 presenters on: Firewise, prevention education and fire restrictions, incident simulation and a SimTable demonstration, Ready, Set, Go!, codes and ordinances, mock interagency incident training, and smoke.

During the buffet lunch participants received an up-to-the minute (it was snowing) 2014 Fire Season outlook from Chuck Maxwell of the National Weather Service. This was followed by a joint presentation from the state hazard mitigation officer and Cochiti Pueblo about how Cochiti Pueblo accessed FEMA Hazard Mitigation funding in response to flooding after the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. The final presentation was from Laura McCarthy of the New Mexico Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and Brent Racher with the New Mexico Forest Industry Association of the Water Source Protection Fund. The latter is an initiative to increase thinning and burning treatments ten-fold in the coming decade by having downstream water users contribute to a fund to protect forests and watersheds from the high-intensity wildfires that have interrupted delivery of drinking water to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Evaluation forms are still being synthesized so that we can improve this event in 2015. One recommendation is to incorporate more interactive working sessions. Overall, this year’s Summit was an inspiring experience that engaged everyone necessary to address New Mexico’s wildfire problem, and help our communities become more fire adapted.

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