Photo Credit: Landowners work with fire professionals to burn slash piles from a WUI fuel reduction treatment. Photo by Forest Stewards Guild

Written By: Nick Olson, Community Forestry Intern, Forest Stewards Guild. 

Tucked away among a mosaic of red deserts and conifer forests, New Mexicans increasingly feel the impacts of wildfire. Many communities are taking proactive measures to mitigate its effects. While the entire state is nearly covered by county-scale community wildfire protection plans (CWPPs), there are also smaller regional or municipal-scale plans. These plans need periodic updates, usually every five years.

CWPPs are planning documents generated through collaborative efforts. Partners range from local citizens, businesses, and municipal officials to state and federal land agencies. Together, partners reach out to neighbors, prioritize mitigation efforts, and outline the response in the event of a wildfire. Pursuing fire adapted communities concepts and practices is an important component of many CWPPs. In 2015 New Mexico updated the statewide guidance for CWPPs, codifying several of these practices.

The Forest Stewards Guild has worked on CWPPs with a number of New Mexican communities. Currently, the Guild is working with the Village of Angel Fire and Los Alamos County to update their plans. Community questionnaires are an integral part of these updates. The questionnaires help define community priorities and identify gaps in awareness and knowledge, and can record change toward or away from CWPP goals.

Completed questionnaires from Los Alamos and Angel Fire provided interesting insights—encouraging and otherwise. When asked what a fire adapted community is, many respondents noted the importance of reducing fuels around buildings, discussing the role of fire with their neighbors, and building a resilient community in the face of fire. However, others responded with “Unknown,” “???,” or “I don’t know.” The former responses show how far we have come in pursuing fire adapted communities, while the latter indicate we still have work to do, even in communities that have experienced wildfire.

Some of our most interesting findings are presented below (one example from each community).

Figure 1. CWPP Update Community Questionnaire

Figure 1. CWPP Update Community Questionnaire

We asked residents how likely they would be to leave their home if it was imminently threatened by fire. Most residents said they would leave or that they are more than likely to evacuate. However, five percent are most likely to stay home. Because sheltering in place can put lives at risk, these findings suggest a need for greater community engagement.

Figure 2. CWPP Update Community Questionnaire

Figure 2. CWPP Update Community Questionnaire

We also asked residents how concerning they find specific potential impacts of wildfire. Residents found property value loss, damage to water quality, economic disruption and loss of life most concerning. Smoke damage and post-fire erosion were least concerning. This information offers two insights. First, property value loss, damage to water quality, economic disruption and loss of life are the best topics to touch on when engaging community members about the importance of FAC. Second, some community members appear to not connect smoke damage to property value loss, or post-fire erosion to water quality. So this is another opportunity to further engage community members about the impacts of fire and the importance of being fire adapted.

This information helps shape priorities for individual communities. A good next step will be to aggregate the data from multiple questionnaires and pull out regional or statewide trends. This will help the Forest Stewards Guild and other FAC supporters focus their communications to reach a larger audience in Northern New Mexico.

For more information, contact Nick Olson at the Forest Stewards Guild (nick.olson[at]forestguild[dot]org).

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