Wildfires are devastating areas in the highlands and New Mexico has been particularly hard hit. As of May 6, the Hermits Peak Fire and Calf Canyon combined have burned 168,009 acres since the Hermits Peak Fire broke out on April 6 and Calf Valley on April 19. That fire is about 20% contained, according to inciweb.nwcg.gov.
The New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service has brought together a number of resources for residents and landowners to prepare for a wildfire event on their property.
Doug Cram, a forestry and fire specialist with the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service, said in a recent webinar that residents need to be aware that “we live on a fire planet, a fire continent, a fire zone, and a fire condition.”
“Fire is part of our system,” he said. “For more than 100 years, we’ve been putting out fires and ruling out fires in management decisions.”
Add people to an arid environment like New Mexico, mix in the climate and some drought, it’s a recipe for prairie fire disaster.
Historically, from a farm and ranch standpoint, firefighters were able to start prairie fires when out of woods or woods.
“But in droughts, that’s not really possible anymore,” Cram said.
In rural situations, riparian areas are not necessarily better off. Cram has experienced some severe fire hazards in recent months. Wildfires tend to move differently than those in open grasslands.
“It’s not necessarily this wall of fire,” he said. “Rather all these red islands are the result of a bonfire that has been set in front of the fire, igniting small fires – they become big fires. That is the challenge of living in a wild urban front or in rural environments.”
Cram warns that when living on a ranch or ranch, trying to stop a prairie fire with a garden hose is not safe or effective.
“You have to deal with the intense heat, the smoke, and the flames,” he said. “We have this interesting dichotomy regarding natural disasters. Whether it’s a hurricane, cyclone or mudslide, we tend to seek shelter, kind of crawling into our shell. However, with wildfires, we seem to be facing a ninja turtle.”
This ends badly, Cram said.
“Forest fires should end here with other natural disasters and leave firefighting to the firefighters,” he said. “We tend to lose more people to grass and tree fires than to wildfires.”
Short grass fires present a challenge because with higher winds the behavior of the fire becomes unpredictable and potentially fatal. Cram suggested a number of tools to consider when trying to protect a farm or cattle ranch from wildfires.
When using parking equipment, park it away from sheds, sheds, or other structures. Leave enough room for mowing or weeding in between.
“Sometimes, weeds build up around these compounds,” he said. “If an ember falls on one vehicle, it ignites that vehicle, and it can act as a vehicle-to-vehicle ignition. So create a defensible space where equipment, fuel, and chemicals are stored.”
Cram suggests storing them about 30 feet apart and–grazing, mowing, and spraying. You can also make a gravel cushion to create a hedge for your equipment.
According to Cram, propane tanks should be at least 30 feet from structures and a 10-foot radius non-combustible area created. Remove trees and grass around the tanks, anything that could cause ignition.
“Certainly if the propane tank exploded, it would be a very difficult combustion environment,” he said.
The safer the environment around the tank, the better. Flooring under cabinets can help keep combustible materials out from under the tank.
Cram said haystacks can be a “highly fire hazard”, and farmers and ranchers need to create defensible space around these mounds. They should be stored anywhere from 30 to 100 feet tall, and if possible, don’t keep all of the hay in the same location.
One example of storage he’s seen is where a product stores a certain number of bales in one place, and more in another.
“So, if it’s this bale of straw, this bunch is floating in the fire, then maybe it’s not this bunch,” he said. “Again, create a space between the haystacks.”
The same goes for thatch storage structures, keeping overgrowth of weeds or weeds around buildings that are trimmed, sprayed or gravel.
When looking at sheds, sheds, or outbuildings, create a 10-foot fuel-free zone around the building. Concrete driveways, gravel paths, and bare soil also help. The same goes for metal roofs and sides, and doors and windows are sealed.
“The fuel load piled up around the chassis will make it very vulnerable,” he said.
Keep trees and shrubs away from the building, as this helps prevent embers from landing on the structure.
Of course in the spring, he said, “you might again want to eat the weeds around him.” “Maybe create some bare floor.”
When constructing and maintaining fuel separators around pastures, homes, and buildings, keep in mind that they should be about 15 feet wide.
“A lot of the time it really depends on the wind and maybe what kind of fuel we’re dealing with,” he said. “Flames can be effective again in some circumstances.”
The break may need to be wider if the wind is blowing faster, with higher flames.
Using fire to manage the earth can help manage the fuel load.
“This is a unique springtime tool — to get rid of that fuel. They are just waiting to steal a red flag warning,” he said. “So again, use a specific fire, make spacers and lower fuel loads.”
Grazing to reduce flames helps target those areas that need it most. Allowing small livestock to graze around homes and other structures that are not easy to mow can reduce fuel loads.
“Rotational grazing can be beneficial and takes into account grasslands that are more at risk of fire,” he said. “For example, near railroads, highways and open access.”
Removing the extra fuel load can help mitigate the fire when the time is right.
It’s always a good idea to have a cattle evacuation plan, Cram said. This includes ensuring the correct registration of animals and brands. Prepare papers when needed. Always have an emergency plan for animals and people in place.
When a farmer or farmer has to consider an animal-free evacuation, Cram said it depends on the situation whether or not fences need to be cut or gates left open.
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell where the fire is because of the smoke.
“And suddenly you’re stuck there in the middle of your meadow with unburned fuel between you and the fire and the wind blowing 25 to 30 miles an hour,” he said. “It could be a dangerous situation.”
Any losses must be properly documented. The USDA offers a Livestock Compensation Program to farmers and ranchers.
“Make sure you have proper insurance coverage and in terms of farms and farms,” he said. “There are often jockeys you can get that cover livestock, feed, crops, equipment, etc.”
It may also be helpful to provide property maps for firefighters, Cram said, depending on the nature of the fire. Marking roads, gates, water tanks, and keys to locks can also come in handy.
“Finally, back in rural settings, you want to know about multiple escape routes,” he said. “But the point is that early on, you want to use whatever means you can — maps, Google Earth, talk to your neighbors, find multiple evacuation strategies.”