Photo Credit: Burning piles in the Tye Burn Unit. Photo by Mike Caggiano

Being fire adapted means taking a variety of approaches to protecting a community against high-intensity wildfires, and also recognizing fire’s natural role in the ecosystem. The first part includes a wide range of activities, such as reducing vegetation in the home ignition zone, prioritizing neighborhood fuel reduction projects, and conducting community education. The second part, recognizing the role of fire, can be more difficult but is equally important. We live in places that have evolved with fire, and putting fire back on the landscape is a necessary component of being fire adapted. Using prescribed fire can be challenging, but involving stakeholders and leveraging local resources can help a community overcome obstacles. Lincoln County, New Mexico is one such community actively mitigating its wildfire hazard to become fire adapted.

One recent initiative involves local firefighters assisting the Lincoln National Forest on prescribed burns as part of a Collaborative Forest Restoration Project. The Ruidoso WUI Interagency Fuel Reduction and Prescribed Fire Implementation Project is meeting multiple objectives, including reducing the fuel loading in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), providing training opportunities to local firefighters, promoting the use of controlled burning, and improving interagency coordination. Working alongside personnel from different agencies is incredibly beneficial, and builds camaraderie to improve communication on wildfire incidents. With additional local resources, the Lincoln National Forest can treat more acres and take advantage of days when burning conditions are suitable when it otherwise would not have sufficient personnel. Bringing local fire departments in on the planning phase has encouraged community buy-in and allowed the collaborative to leverage resources.

Cross-training structural firefighters who work in a WUI community is another important benefit. On a controlled burn we introduce novice firefighters to wildland fire and the concept of using fire as a management tool. For more experienced firefighters we can provide National Wildfire Coordinating Group task book training opportunities, which is helping to address a local engine boss shortage. Local non-profit organizations concerned with forest health and a strong working group have bolstered the collaborative and have provided help conducting community outreach and education. While still in year one, the project is off to a great start and has already accomplished significant milestones, including the treatment of 1,000 acres.

Developing and implementing the project has had its share of hiccups. Coordinating multiagency burns is challenging. Coordinators have had to juggle schedules, burn windows, and egos. Agreements have been put in place to define responsibilities between the host agency and participating agencies to address liability concerns, and stakeholders are working to develop long term memoranda of understanding. Most importantly, stakeholders have recognized the need for returning fire to the landscape by actively engaging and leveraging local fire management resources. With the Little Bear fire that burned 250 homes in 2012 etched in collective memories, community outreach has been important. Multiple presentations to local groups, radio spots, newspaper articles, and signage have been informing the public about the collaborative burns. We are working to convey that a little smoke now is better than a lot of smoke later.

Additional cooperative burns are planned for this summer and fall; stakeholders are hoping to treat areas close to the towns of Capitan, Alto and Ruidoso, and to train more firefighters. Getting folks to work together requires commitment, and a project like this could not have happened without strong local support. It is evidence of a community using the resources it has available to become fire adapted.

Some guys in our department don’t have any wildland experience, this is a great way to expose them to it since structure fires are so different- local firefighter

Collaborative members: South Central Mountain RC&D, Lincoln National Forest, NM State Forestry, Ruidoso Fire Department, American Wildfire, State Land Office, Ruidoso Forestry Department, Lincoln County Fire Services, EcoServants, Eastern New Mexico University – Ruidoso, Little Bear Reform Coalition, Mescalero Agency (Bureau of Indian Affairs)

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