SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A wildfire that has charred around 5 square miles (12 square km) just north of the scenic city of Santa Fe is slowing down after spewing smoke for over a week.
While surrounding communities are seemingly out of immediate danger, fire officials say the overall risk of wildfires in New Mexico and across the West is getting worse as more people are moving into wooded areas that border already dry and overgrown forests, like those on the outskirts of New Mexico’s capital city.
Local officials say county roads offer few escape routes that could be overwhelmed in an emergency, much like what happened in Paradise, California, in 2018.
So some homeowners are using the blaze along Rio en Medio as an opportunity to raise awareness and spur action among their neighbors to mitigate the risks.
“I think that this recent fire will raise consciousness,” said Pam Ryan, 67, a volunteer who helps neighbors with risk assessments as part of the national Firewise program.
Ignited by lightning, the fire was spotted Aug. 17 less than a couple miles from the village of Rio en Medio. The rugged area is bordered by two streams and is full of fuel that includes conifer and ponderosa pine.
Aside from the challenging terrain complicating firefighting efforts, the monsoon season that would have typically helped to dampen conditions has failed to produce much rain, leaving soil and fuel moisture levels very low for this time of year.
Crews have built anchor points in an effort to keep the flames from spreading and they planned to burn up fuel in strategic spots in hopes of starving the fire and controlling its movement. However, officials warned Friday that burnout operations could be hampered by thunderstorms, rain and gusty winds.
Mountain biking and hiking trails have likely been torched, some power lines have burned and residents for miles around have been choking on smoke.
To reduce the risk of exacerbating lung problems caused by maladies such as COVID-19, Santa Fe County Fire Marshal Jaome Blay announced a suspension on burning permits in an effort to clear the air in the short term.
Looking ahead, Blay and others acknowledge that many of the roads in northern New Mexico are too narrow to accommodate a sudden exodus for residents to get out — or for firefighters to get in.
“We’ve been in these areas for hundreds of years, and at that time they were only using carriages and horses,” Blay said. “It’s not wide enough for a fire truck.”
Blay also noted his hands are tied when it comes to mandating that homeowners widen private roads or clear dangerous undergrowth.
“If we had that authority, we would have done it a long time ago,” Blay said.
Ryan, the Firewise volunteer, moved to New Mexico three years ago. The previous owner of her home left a pamphlet about fire safety from California.
“Fire was kind of a new thing to me,” Ryan said.
A naturalist by training, Ryan decided to learn the new ecosystem head-on. She brought the local fire department in to do an assessment at her house, the kind she now volunteers for.
She downed small trees near her house, cut the limb off a cottonwood that went over her roof, and cut back branches that would have blocked a fire truck from making it up her driveway.
“Had we done no mitigation, we wouldn’t have been insured,” she said.
Unlike flood insurance, fire insurance is not heavily subsidized by the federal government in high-risk areas.
Santa Fe was No. 12 last year on a list of most at-risk communities in the American West. Some 23,500 residents live in high-risk areas that would cost $7 billion to reconstruct, according to a report from Core Logic, which insurance companies look to for pricing policies.
Los Angeles was number one on the list, with 127,000 people living in high-risk areas and a potential $71 billion reconstruction cost.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.