By Matt Piccarello
Heading into summer, the specter of wildfire looms large over New Mexico. After experiencing one of the driest and warmest winters on record, it doesn’t take an expert to know that our current wildfire potential is extremely high. All of the ingredients are there: reduced snowpack, higher-than-normal temperatures, high winds and an abundance of vegetation available to burn (fuel). While we’ve seen this setup play out countless times as a function of the Southwest’s normal climatic fluctuations, two key differences have emerged in recent years that have changed the implications.
One is climate change. Climate change has exaggerated the normal swings in wet and dry periods. Droughts are hotter, snowpack is lower and fire season is longer. Climate change also exacerbates problems caused by poor land-use decisions a century ago that led to dense, homogeneous forests in much of the West. Forests that were already stressed have the added challenge of contending with climate change.
The other key difference is the expansion of the built environment into fire-adapted ecosystems. Regardless of whether a fire is burning slowly and deliberately through a healthy forest started by a lightning strike or roaring through tree canopies at 40 miles an hour, if someone’s home is in the way we’d like it to not burn down. That’s not meant to suggest that humans should be stricken from living, recreating, or working in natural areas. What that example illustrates is that even under the best conditions, we have to find a way to live with wildfire.
Accepting the role of fire in our forests is the first step towards becoming a fire-adapted community. That baseline understanding is essential to plotting the best course of action to reduce wildfire risk and to increase the resilience of our forests to disturbances including wildfire and climate change. Viewing wildfire through the lens of a fire ecologist, recognizing that fires will continue to occur and that forests need them to occur, helps shift our thinking towards how to live with fire instead of seeing it as the enemy. This realization puts the onus on us to change how we build our homes, design our communities and interact with fires when they occur.
The Fire-Adapted New Mexico Learning Network (FAC NM, www.FACNM.org) is one initiative helping to find place-based solutions to increasing wildfire resilience. While FAC NM has been around since 2015, the network is currently working to place a greater emphasis on membership and capacity building among community leaders. By creating an online space for people to connect and share lessons learned and simply ask for help, members can leverage our collective action.
In addition to FAC Members, FAC Leaders take a greater role in helping their communities improve their fire adaptation. A FAC Leader is someone you or your neighbor can look to for advice. FAC Leaders are the engine of the FAC NM Network. Experience has shown that collaboration is one of the most effective ways to reduce wildfire risk. Sharing resources, whether they be financial, labor, or ideas, helps FAC Leaders have an outsized impact in their communities. But collaboration only works if there are active participants. Organizing community chipper days, responding to a question on the FAC NM forum, or sharing a success story about neighbors helping neighbors are all examples of how FAC Leaders can help drive the FAC NM Network.
Many homeowners are looking for answers to the question “What should I do to protect my home from a wildfire?” A quick google search will return a myriad of options (11.2 million to be exact). The most common answer, and a good one, is to create defensible space around your home. When a wildfire or embers from a nearby wildfire approach a home with defensible space, they are less likely to cause damage because excess fuels have been removed from within about 100 feet. The grass is mowed, needles are raked and landscaping in the first 3–5 feet surrounding the house is nonflammable. This work reduces approaching flames and minimizes the likelihood of embers finding fuel.
Bringing in outdoor furniture cushions and closing windows on red flag days are also part of it. Screening vents, cleaning debris from underneath a deck, and moving the firewood pile away from the house in spring and summer are also important. Using fire-resistant building materials or retrofitting with resistant materials are also components to creating defensible space.
While the Internet may be able to tell you what to do, it likely won’t tell you how to do it. What if you don’t have access to a chainsaw? Maybe you’re not physically able to do the manual labor necessary, and what the heck are you supposed to do with all the green waste you just created? FAC NM members can connect to offer solutions like a community clean-up day where a few experienced sawyers go house to house removing low-lying branches while neighbors help each other pile or chip green waste.
Fostering these connections and collective action is what FAC NM is all about. The FAC Leader program in particular is meant to help communities assess risks and identify assets so they can figure out the best course of action. Every community will have a different starting point. Some may be farther along than others in their planning and assessments. A community with a Community Wildfire Protection Plan and established Firewise communities will have different needs than a new subdivision.
If we can all agree that fires have always and will continue to occur in forested ecosystems (to varying degrees depending on forest type) then we are already much of the way towards becoming a fire-adapted community. However, being a fire-adapted community varies based on place, ecology, terrain and culture. Even when we generally know what needs to change, there isn’t a straightforward path. That is why FAC NM was established. The FAC NM Learning Network is the place to learn, share, and connect, so join today!
Matt Piccarello is assistant Southwest director of the Forest Stewards Guild.