3 Questions

3 Questions

with New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute Public Information Coordinator Staci Matlock

(Courtesy Staci Matlock)

The South Fork and Salt fires that began June 17 on Mescalero Apache land near Ruidoso swiftly caused mass evacuations, property damage and loss of life. The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute operates out of New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas and describes its mission as working “to reduce catastrophic wildfires and restore resilient, fire- and climate-adapted ecosystems.” In the aftermath of the 2022 Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, the Institute also began offering wildfire protection, survival and prevention workshops, which it now helps facilitate through Luna Community College’s new Wildfire Resiliency Training Center. SFR spoke with Public Information Coordinator Staci Matlock about those efforts; this interview has been edited for clarity and concision. (Evan Chandler)

What advice can you give to individuals in high-risk wildfire areas for protecting their homes?

Some of the best things people can do don’t cost a lot of money. One of the first things that people can do is a home review. So basically, you walk outside your house and you look up to the roof, and you start looking around at things such as your gutters. If they are filled with pine needles and leaves, you need to sweep them out. You want to make sure you have metal mesh covering the vents; most homes have these toward the top and bottom of their houses on the outside. Are your gutters filled with pine needles and leaves? Sweep them out. We recommend metal mesh coverings on outdoor vents. Most houses and garages have vents toward the top, and some also have them on the bottom of their houses on the outside. Make sure to move cushions on outdoor furniture inside. The way for people to think of it is, if you stack up a bunch of logs at your campground and drop a match underneath those logs, they probably aren’t going to burn because a fire needs some sort of kindling like grass or paper, and then that flares up and catches the logs on fire. It’s the same basic concept with a house.

What steps can people take in case they need to evacuate?

People should try to have what’s called a ‘go bag’ ready at all times, and they may even want to carry a smaller version in their vehicles. In those bags, one should have any prescription medicines they use. If they don’t want to carry around their prescriptions, they ought to have a copy of the prescription from their doctors and make sure they have their doctors’ numbers with them. I would recommend extra chargers for their cell phones and a few extra changes of clothes. It’s almost like things you would take on a weekend trip. We want to make sure people have the items they really need just to stay comfortable for however long they need to evacuate, and please sign up for local emergency alerts.

Given New Mexico’s extensive wildfire history, how should people be thinking about fire?

We always just want to be empathetic to the extreme difficulties people go through when they have to evacuate from any crisis. It just upends your life in innumerable ways, and it’s scary when you’re in the middle of it. The way my colleagues at the Institute would like folks to think about fire is that it’s important to try to be prepared knowing it can happen at any time, but not live life in fear of fire. We’d like people to, over time, learn to live with fire. The reason is that in many parts of New Mexico, many of these forests were adapted to fire for centuries. A lot of these forests used to have frequent very low-intensity, low-to-the-ground fires that would sweep through from lightning, and they would thin out the forest. But those fires are different from what we are seeing now because for a few decades we got in the habit of stopping all fires—believing that they were bad—and now we have overgrown forests. We have drought, we have higher winds and we have more people, more power lines, more of everything that can start fires, so we’re ripe for these really big, hot, fast moving fires that forests have not adapted to.

What we as an Institute want to help people do is understand that fire is not bad—it’s what type of fire. As we all grapple with this, we need to think about how to return to well-managed, well-planned prescribed fires to these landscapes. That sounds counterintuitive, but it’s what it’s going to take. These prescribed fires are a key to trying to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

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