2021 Carson Firewise Day

Peter Allen kicks of the 2021 Carson Firewise Day.

Date and time: Saturday, May 29, 2021, 10:00 am

Venue: Outdoors at Art and Sharon Wilbur’s property on S Carson Rd

Present: 20 people

Welcome, introductions, and opening remarks

The meeting kicked off at 10:12 am with Peter Allen (PA), Chairman of the Carson Firewise Committee, introducing other committee members—Art Wilbur, Paul Green, Elisabeth Meier and Carson Volunteer Fire Department representatives Jordan Agee and Scott Freeman.

PA showed the certificate that confirmed Carson’s 2021 Firewise status and thanked Paul Green for his efforts in collating information from Carson community members about their wildfire mitigation efforts, and submitting this to the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewire USA program online management portal. The Firewise status will be helpful in applying for grants. The person PA used to liaise with at New Mexico State Forestry (Tres Piedras office) has moved to Georgia and PA will try to follow up with Wendy Mason to fill her in on Carson’s Firewise history. For example, a survey previously revealed two sensitive sites and any work in those areas may require NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) assessments which can be a costly process.

PA introduced two Carson Volunteer Fire Department members, Jordan Agee and Scott Freeman, who are trained Wildland-Urban Interface specialists. PA then introduced guest speaker Jack Carpenter, a forester and one of the contractors approved by Taos Soil and Conservation District (TSWCD) to work with homeowners on clearing up their properties to create a defensible space around their homes. TCSD gave their approval for Jack to make a presentation to this Carson Firewise event.

Before yielding the floor, PA reminded attendees to pick up some of the useful literature on display including an updated Living With Fire brochure: A Guide for the Homeowner (New Mexico) and TSWCD’s Forest Health Programinformation sheet, cost-share assistance application form (this form is for 2021/22 and needs to be submitted by June 30, 2021; a different form is needed after this deadline), and list of approved contractors.

Guest speaker presentation

Jack Carpenter (JC) began with brief details of his background: grew up in the south, went to college in Missouri; worked in Central America where he met his wife; moved to Tres Piedras and worked with Tres Piedras Ranger District of Carson National Forest; worked with various fire departments including Tres Piedras (before Carson had its own) and was present at many wildland-urban interface fires; researched and wrote a report on Bark Beetles in Taos County; he and his wife have fostered 140 kids and adopted four over the last 31 years; moved to Taos and cleared sagebrush from 1-acre property which allowed native grasses to return; has been involved with the Carson community and has watched it grow.

JC encouraged attendees to complete the TSWCD’s Forest Health Program cost-share assistance application form and submit it in person to the TSWCD office which is close to Sagebrush Inn. Tanya Duncan, his boss at TSWCD, will give him a list of applicants after the June 30, 2021 deadline. He will then contact landowners to arrange an assessment of the buildings and property, and a “mosey” round with the landowner, taking as much time as is needed with the aim of making each visit as educational and informative as he can. He carries around his 39-inch measuring stick to mark trees for limbing and branches for different recommended designations (>2” for firewood; <2” for chipping). Once he’s made an assessment and marked trees for removal or trimming, he submits his recommendation to the TSWCD board who makes a decision and sends a letter to the landowner approving or disapproving the cost-share assistance application. Landowners have a year to carry out the recommended work themselves or hire a contractor, with the bulk of the contractor’s cost covered by TSWCD. After a contractor has finished, JC does a final inspection and confirms satisfactory completion of the recommended work to TSWCD who then releases the funds to the landowner. Note: TSWCD will not pay for the purchase of equipment but will pay for eg gas used in a chainsaw.

JC emphasized that this kind of work is important not only for wildfire mitigation but also helps keep water in the soil through the scattering of pine needles and leaves as well as small-diameter trimmings and chipped branches. This ground cover reduces the drying effect of winds. The cover should ideally be about 2” deep and no more than 6”. Any deeper will attract bugs and increase fire danger. While official recommendation is to burn big brush piles, JC encourages landowners to chip and scatter trimmings. He feels burning big piles can lead to too-hot fires that may burn the soil.

Through his work, JC has developed an interest in in the history of the area, particularly dating when major fires went through as revealed by tree ring patterns and studying fire scars. For example, there’s a tree in San Cristobal dated to the 1500s which bears some fire scars. Some islands of trees seem to have survived forest fires going back a few hundred years, giving us some “old-growth” pinon pine trees of about 4-ft diameter. Most trees have to go deep for water but some manage to tap into “perched water tables” (like a cup above a clay layer that captures water) and can grow much taller than their neighbors.

JC recommended Western Forest Insects and Field Guide to Insects and Diseases of Arizona and New Mexico Forests as good resources for learning about insect pests that affect the health of our trees. A knowledge of plant associations for woodlands is also a key part of his work—knowing what does well or can adapt to the climate and conditions in a particular area eg Fragrant Sumac Rhus aromatica and Four-wing Saltbush Atriplex canescens. The trees that do best here are Pinyon Pine Pinus edulis, and three species of juniper while aspen can grow but need watering. Knowing the land-use history is also useful. For example, after the onset of WW2, large areas were turned over to running cattle and sheep to feed the troops and this led to the invasive Big Sagebrush Artemesia tridentata pushing out native grasses. The sheep’s tiny hooves tend to compact the soil making it more ideal for sagebrush. But once the sagebrush is removed through brush-hogging or use of herbicides (which JC discourages), the grasses will return.

Q & A and comments

Several attendees had comments and questions related to experiences with trees on their properties. (1) A few attendees have had the TSWCD’s Forest Health Program recommended work done and are very happy that it has made their properties more open and park-like. (2) Will having a large number of mistletoe kill a tree? It depends on the mistletoe species. Dwarf mistletoe may take 30–40 years to kill a juniper but other mistletoes can kill off a tree in 10–15 years if every limb is covered in it. JC suggested trimming some of the mistletoe and leaving the trimmings for deer which seem to like browsing on them. (3) Can tornadoes damage trees here? Tornadoes are rare in southwest though JC once saw one (and the resulting felled patch of trees) from a fire tower in Arizona, after being told tornadoes don’t occur there. PA stated that microbursts do occur that can sometimes lay a strip bare. (4) Does the NM State Forestry Division plant “exotic trees” such as Lodgepole Pine? The division has tried planting Lodgepole in Cumbres & Toltec to see if they would grow and provide a snow barrier for the railroad line but the experiment was not a success. Sugar Pine also did not do well. (5) Will Ponderosa Pine grow here? It is a local tree though generally at higher elevations and would need some acclimatization here. Elisabeth Meir has one growing well in her yard though it is near the septic tank. (6) Were bison historically here? There may have been some which may explain why some tree patches didn’t catch fire. The USFS had a small herd at Valle Vidal and there used to be a herd on a ranch north of 285 in the late 80s. Terry Wolff saw bison in Arroyo Seco in the 80s. The Turner ranch has bison. (7) Does tarping a wood slash pile protect it from embers? No, the tarp will burn easily and become kindling for a fire. It’s best to have these piles some distance away from buildings or soak them regularly if close to the house. In the same vein, firewood should not be stacked up to the eaves against the house, especially those with wooden siding, but should be moved a safe distance away. (8) Peter Allen has a wood chipper and can chip tree trimmings for $25 per pickup load. (9) Does the county stop maintaining S Carson Rd where it turns east? Yes, apparently so. The Commissioner needs to be informed that the road doesn’t end there and the section beyond needs to be maintained to provide access for the Fire Deparment.

Firewise reporting requirements

Paul Green (PG) reminded everyone that the Firewise recognition program recognizes any work done to reduce fire risk in the community. For Carson to maintain its Firewise status, we need to send a detailed report every year about everything that the community has done toward this end. So it’s important to keep track of every minute and every effort put into all relevant tasks to maintain defensible space between house and trees: tree limbing / trimming, hauling away brush piles, chipping branches, replacing vinyl with metal gutters, increasing the gaps in deck flooring. Mileage for driving to the dump and cost of buying or renting a chipper can be counted. Last year, Carson had twice the basic requirements to meet the Firewise standard. PG will email everyone the Firewise USA Time and Expense Investment Examples.

Concluding remarks

Art Wilbur (AW) asked everyone to ensure their information in the Carson phone tree list is up-to-date (they can request a copy from the Carson Association Chair Elizabeth Brownrigg). He encouraged everyone to have an evacuation pack always at the ready (it should include medications, water, and ideally a day’s food), and to remember that the marshalling area is between Carson Store and the Fire Department. Being firewise means not only taking care of our properties but also ourselves and our animals. AW reported that the Carson Volunteer Fire Department now has a 50K-gal water tank buried in the ground on its premises (installed courtesy of our local tax dollars) and, recent testing confirmed it to be fully operational: 20K gal was pumped in 4 mins to fill tanks and the fire truck. Firewise certification should see a decrease in our home insurance rates, depending on distance from the Carson Fire Department. Even if the Fire Department can’t save a home, they should hopefully contain the fire around that property. We need draw the Commissioner’s attention to the fact that the fire truck can’t get to about 15 or more homes off S Carson Rd, 1–2 miles in, during certain times of the year.

Peter Allen reiterated that we all need to create a defensible space around our homes and ensure the fire truck has a way to get in and also out of our properties. We should also understand that rushing to help a neighbor during a fire event is discouraged by the Fire Department because we will get in their way. Remember the 5Ps for evacuation: people, pets, prescriptions, papers, pray. Every firewise action we take makes it safer for our first responders and firemen.

Jordan Agee and Scott Freeman stated all are welcome to attend the Fire Department drills. We need to remember that if our space is not defensible, the fire truck will turn around and leave. Their motto is: Risk a little to save a little, risk a lot to save a life.

Attendees were offered coupons redeemable for a free slice of pizza at the Carson Store. The meeting ended at 11:50 am.

The 2020 FireWise Day event (rescheduled from from March 23 to May 9, then to tentatively June and August) was postponed indefinitely and eventually canceled due to Covid-19.

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