The 2019 Carson FireWise event, postponed from March 1st because of weather, took place on Saturday, March 23rd, from 1.00 to 3.30 pm at the Carson Volunteer Fire Department on Hwy 567, with presentations as part of a Fuel for Thought program. Some of the Carson Community Association board members, in conjunction with the Volunteer Fire Departments from Carson, Tres Piedras, and Latir, and New Mexico State Forestry, have been working to make Carson a “FireWise” community. Part of the process involves organizing an annual event to increase awareness on how individual residents and the community as a whole can prevent any unwanted fires.
The event began with informal mingling of attendees and presenters, enjoying free pizza and refreshments provided by CCA, with time for residents to view display boards and pick up information brochures. Elizabeth Brownrigg, CCA President, kicked off the event with a couple of brief community announcements. She then introduced the lineup of speakers and presenters for the afternoon’s program.
Chris Cote, Taos County Wildland/Urban Interface Coordinator, presented a video on fire prevention with respect to fuels. The video highlighted the importance of removing any fuel in contact with parts of the house, such as dried leaves, branches, and pine cones, that could be ignited by fire brands (sparks and embers) blown towards the house during a wildland fire event. This is especially important if the house has wooden shingles on the roof or walls. Homeowners should also be aware that fire brands can blow into attics through vents unless the vent mesh is of very small gauge. Areas of the house to check and clear include around the base of the house, under any green vegetation growing against the house, and gutters. Chris Cote emphasized that of the three issues relevant to fires (weather, topography and fuel), only the last is within our power to do something about. So we should all take action to clear fuel to form a defensible area of at least 5 ft around our houses.
Peter Allen, CCA Board Member, reminded residents that they can ask Taos Soil and Water Conservation District (TSWCD) to visit their properties, and inspect and mark up trees and vegetation that should be thinned or removed. With your consent, TSWCD staff will produce and present to their board a plan with an estimated budget for the work necessary to protect your buildings. If approved, the TSWCD can pay 85% of the cost of carrying out the work by qualified contractors. Alternatively, you can choose to implement the plan yourself. The most important point to bear in mind is that a plan is required for a FireWise Community designation. Having that designation will enable the Carson community to apply for funds to cover fire mitigation activities that benefit the community. Call Peter 505-795-3298 with questions or Charlotte Martinez at TSWCD 575-751-0584 for more details or to make an appointment.
Richard Garcia, Safety Officer from Kit Carson Electric Co-op (in place of Chief Operating Officer Richard Martinez) spoke about the potential fire danger of vegetation, a source of fuel, under electric lines running throughout Carson. Richard explained that Kit Carson only has two full-time crews covering three vast service areas, so the periods between inspections of a particular area are unavoidably long. He showed, through slides, what homeowners should look for on their properties, how to assess potential problems, and who to notify for Kit Carson Electric Co-Op mitigation. Trees on power lines can cause blinks / surges that computers and microwaves are especially sensitive to. Residents should look out for trees growing through power lines including dry trees. Sometimes, while there is no visible sign of problems, the inside of a tree could be burning. Trees touching fibre optic cables can, over time (especially in windy conditions), rub the insulation off, and can also rub the outer aluminum down to the steel core of electric lines. Kit Carson has the capability through OCR breakers to try and burn off small branches remotely before sending out a work crew for on site clearance if the remote attempt fails. Residents who have Kit Carson power and fiber optic lines running through their properties can call 575-758-2258 for tree trimming service. You can also collect up tree trimmings from your property and pile them on the side of the road for Kit Carson to shred and turn into mulch. Kit Carson prefers to send a crew out to a particular site for a day to work on multiple requests rather than for single requests that take a few minutes each time.
Rob Hagerty of the Carson Volunteer Fire Department spoke about proper and legal burning of slash/vegetation (fuel). He explained that the most important thing when doing any slash and burn activity outdoors is to make sure we have the proper tools: shovel and hose or buckets of water. We should start with a small fire, with a feeder pile to add to the fire. Once the burn is done, it should be completely doused with water or snow or dirt, making sure to check by placing the back of a hand against the ground.
Rob reminded residents that a burn permit is required for slash piles bigger than 3-ft diameter (not needed for small fires eg BBQ, firepit, though bear in mind that any kind of fires are not allowed during burn bans when weather conditions are very dry and windy). We can get a free permit at the Office of Emergency Management at the Community Center on Miranda Canyon Rd or the Lee Building, next to Taos Hospital, on Weimar. We should remember to call 575-758-2216 before 9 am on the day of the burn before beginning the burn and then call back when the burn is done. This way, dispatchers can let us know whether burning is prohibited that day because of wind conditions (>10mph) or to alert us to exercise caution because of wind. They will also know whether to send a crew out if a fire is called in at our location outside of that time frame. The permit should be on the permittee during the burn. Burning should be confined to dry vegetation and should not include items harmful to the environment or neighbors, such as tires, plastic, old railroad ties (which have a high creosote content); should take place after 9 am and 20 minutes before sunset; should not obscure visibility on nearby roads; and should not take place within 300 ft of any residence, power lines, or water courses. If burns will take place close to residences, the occupants must be notified 72 hr prior to the burn. Slash-and-burn piles cannot be larger than 10×10′; any piles that exceed these dimensions will need to be inspected prior to burning. Rob emphasized that the county changed the ordnances (ORD 2081-3) for slash and burn last year, so residents need to acquaint themselves with the new rules which can be found at the taos.org website under emergency services and burning information.
Peter Allen, Carson Community Association Board Member, showed a map of the Carson FireWise area for the purpose of Carson residents planning escape routes from their properties in case of a fire. Peter explained that the map is still under development but urged everyone to study the map, look for the marks that represent their properties, and see how they would get out and get the designated meeting point in case of a serious wildland fire. The meeting point in Carson is the plot of land adjacent to the fire station. This is also where a Red Cross station would be if their services are needed.People should avoid blocking ingress routes for fire service vehicles and should pull over to allow emergency vehicles to pass, and should not drive over to help neighbors and potentially block emergency vehicle access.
Michael Gatlen, West Zone District Ranger, U.S. Forest Service, spoke in place of Jeremy Marshall and introduced other members of the team present (Bernie Ross, Jamie Long, Matt Garcia, and Jeremy Garcia). Michael provided an update on the progress on the project to turn USFR 556 (west edge of Carson) into a fire break and improve the road to allow for quick egress for Carson residents and quick ingress for fire responders. He explained that the first step, in which the State Preservation Office sends archaeologists into the field to carry out surveys, began last year and is expected to be completed this summer, when a report will be presented and hopefully cleared. This could possibly be followed by a NEPA which would be a longer process but the Service could instead designate 100 ft on either side of the road as a Fuel Wood Area where residents may apply for permits to harvest marked trees, thereby thinning the vegetation and effectively creating a firebreak. The Service may also suggest a Road Use Agreement (RUA) which would help alleviate constraints from limited resources—the Service has one grader and one road crew to cover 1.5 million acres and the period between servicing a particular area can be very long. So they have a vision of shared stewardship with communities through RUAs, whereby communities can apply for grants or hire machines and crews themselves to maintain roads to a standard that meet the communities’s needs for emergency ingress and egress. If Carson attains a FireWise Community designation, we would have access to grants for such maintenance work.
Tim Smith of the Carson Volunteer Fire Department reminded everyone that in a major wildland fire, fire crews go round the area and assess which houses are defensible and which are not, and they focus their efforts on the former. So if we want fire crews to make an attempt to save our house, it is essential that we make the effort to create a defensible space / safety zone all around our house up to three times the size of our house.
Elizabeth Brownrigg thanked the presenters and Carson residents for turning out for the event and encouraged everyone to pick up information material to educate themselves about how to be firewise.