RUIDOSO DOWNS, N.M. — Even the lightest wisps of white smoke from a controlled fire in the Lincoln National Forest brought back bad memories for Lily Candelaria, a lifelong resident of the area.
“I’ve been too close (to a forest fire). It’s very scary,” Candelaria said, recalling a large forest fire about four years ago that came very close to the front door of her home.
However, fire officials hope that because of last winter’s wet weather, this year’s fire season will not be as severe.
“Last winter definitely helped us out,” said Paul Schmidtke, a fire management officer for the Lincoln National Forest.
Schmidtke said the above-normal precipitation has delayed the start of the fire season, which usually starts this month, until about mid-May.
“There still is a potential for an active fire season later this spring,” Schmidtke said. “We’ll continue to monitor the weather and we’re looking at requesting additional resources.”
Many trees didn’t have a chance to soak up enough moisture to prevent drying out, and fire officials have been conducting prescribed, or controlled, burns to break up the forest canopy, which helps firefighters get to a fire quicker, Schmidtke said, adding that the burns also help rid the area of dried wood that would otherwise feed a forest fire.
At the Pine Springs prescribed burn last week, about 70 forest officials, including a helicopter crew, conducted aerial ignitions to burn about 1,800 acres of forest.
“The Pine Springs project is designed to reduce the amount of hazardous fuels in the area,” said Jay Esperance, the burn boss and a fire manager officer for the Lincoln National Forest’s Smokey Bear Ranger District. “It is also meant to improve habitat quality for a variety of wildlife species.”
Schmidtke said that although many may assume that the wet weather will bring more insects into the area that will kill the trees, the trees instead have been made more resilient to insects because of the increased moisture.
According to the Lincoln Zone Coordination Center, which covers areas of forest in Ruidoso, Cloudcroft and the Guadalupe Mountains, as well as the valley areas in Carlsbad and Roswell, 38 fires in the area last year burned 64,535 acres of forest.
So far this year, a small, human-caused fire has been the only one in the mountains, center officials said.
Barbara Luna, statewide fire prevention coordinator and district forester for the New Mexico State Forestry, said her office has been trying to educate area residents on how to protect their homes from fire.
Luna advises residents to assess the area around their homes to see if any pine needles, wood roofs or thinning vegetation could feed a fire.
“It’s about creating a defensible space in hopes that if a fire comes through, the house would stand,” Luna said.
Margo Whitt, a fire information officer for the Lincoln National Forest in Ruidoso Downs, said that since the forests of Ruidoso and other nearby communities are popular with visitors, especially those from El Paso, they should pay closer attention to potential fire dangers.
“People don’t realize how dry it is out here,” Whitt said.
Candelaria said she makes it a habit to watch out for and take down the license plate numbers of people who throw lit cigarette butts on the ground.
“People from out of town should be more cautious,” Candelaria said. “They’re not from around here, so they don’t know what we go through.”