San Juan County firefighters join battle against NM wildfires

San Juan County firefighters join battle against NM wildfires

13 June 2012

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 USA — AZTEC — New Mexico’s forests are burning bigger than ever recorded, and local firefighters are helping to organize and assist the fight to put out the flames.

San Juan County Fire Department firefighters joined the battle against huge wildfires raging in southern New Mexico, and Farmington city firefighters are waiting to be dispatched.

Craig Daugherty, the deputy fire chief for San Juan County, returned Saturday from a two-week stint in southwest New Mexico where he helped lead the response to the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire.

The largest fire in New Mexico’s recorded history, Whitewater-Baldy is burning more than 435 square miles of the Gila Wilderness east of Glenwood and is 37 percent contained, according, a website operated by the National Forest Service that gives information on wildland fires.

Daugherty was sent to the fire because he’s part of the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Command Team. For six years he has been a member of the team, which specializes in large-scale emergency response.

Daugherty was one of three operation section chiefs who planned the response for the fire until it transferred power to a different entity this weekend because the fire is no longer considered a Type 1 emergency.

Because of the isolated wilderness and the lack of personal and private property in the Gila Wilderness, firefighters allowed the fire to scorch parts of the forest and waited to fight it until
it was in an approachable and safe position, Daugherty said.

High winds, high temperatures, low humidity and high fuel loads in the state’s forests are causing the blazes to sweep across large swaths of New Mexico forest, Daugherty said.

“It is basically a perfect storm,” he said.

Volunteer firefighters also are assisting in the wildland fire fights across the state. A fuel truck, an engine and five county firefighters were sent to Whitewater-Baldy and returned safely last week, San Juan County Fire Chief Doug Hatfield said.

Three San Juan County firefighters and one engine are on scene at the Little Bear Fire, which started June 4.

That fire is in the White Mountain Wilderness near Ruidoso. It’s burning more than 36,000 acres of steep and rugged terrain.

Both wildland fires in southern New Mexico and the Bear Spring Fire near Ponderosa were started by lightning.

Little Bear has destroyed 154 structures and Gov. Susana Martinez declared a state of emergency Tuesday in Lincoln County.

Hatfield said the county’s fire crews are working night duty in the firefight. The team is starting and controlling back burns along the wildfire’s path to burn potential fuel. It also is assisting hotshot crews.

There are more than 1,500 personnel responding to the two fires, according to

Fighting a large wildland fire is a combination of long, arduous, hot days and time when the firefighters hurry up and wait, Daugherty said.

“Some days it is nonstop firefighting, and the others days you stand by and wait for the fire to get in country where it is accessible,” Daugherty said.

Four Farmington Fire Department firefighters are ready and waiting to be called to one of the fires, said Farmington Fire Chief Terry Page.

Many local firefighters receive wildland fire training, Hatfield said.

“It gives us more experience and the knowledge of how larger fires are fought,” Hatfield said. “It gives us the opportunity to see different management strategies for large-scale fires.”

For example, almost all San Juan County fires are fought directly by attacking the heat. But when fighting a large wildland fire, firefighters are forced to evaluate the weather and geography. They anticipate where the fire is heading and remove fuel from its path, Hatfield said.

And the experience may be needed in San Juan County.

“There are some areas of the county that could definitely see a large wildfire,” Daugherty said.

San Juan County and its firefighters are paid for working outside the county. Last year the county fire department received about $400,000 for sending its firefighters to large wildfires, Hatfield said.

That money is used to pay volunteer firefighters $10 for every call they respond to and for the fire department’s regular expenses, he said.

Hatfield said there is not an increased risk for local residents when county firefighters are sent elsewhere.

“We’re not putting the county in jeopardy,” he said. “We are not going to strip the county of firefighters to fight fires in other places.”

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