Fire Alarm

Residents question city’s decision to not alert them following neighborhood fire

News (Mark Herndon)

Susan Shields first saw it as she stood in her kitchen bird watching the afternoon of June 6: smoke coming from the west near her residence in the 1500 block of Cerro Gordo on the city’s east side.

“I thought, ‘Oh, that doesn’t look good,’” Shields tells SFR.

It turned out, a half-acre brush fire had broken out in the area.

The retired real estate broker immediately called her neighbor, she says, but quickly hung up to call 911 as the smoke “got worse.” Yet after fire officials arrived and extinguished the fire, questions remained for nearby residents.

“Nobody knew how the fire had started, and why didn’t we get an alert?” Shields asked, referencing the city’s Alert Santa Fe system which sends emergency notifications to those who sign up, including her. “We got no word about it. Nothing.”

Santa Fe Fire Department Assistant Chief of Operations Freddie Martinez confirmed to SFR that no alert went out regarding the situation. He says the department made the decision to not notify residents because the team was “able to contain the fire and be on the offensive” quickly, noting fire officials responded and arrived on scene within minutes.

“By the time I was making the notifications, I got confirmation from commanders on scene that there was full containment of the fire and we had a water supply,” Martinez says. “We didn’t want to notify that there was a fire and potentially incite panic when the fire was already out at that point.”

Canyon Neighborhood Association Communications Director Cynthia Garrett, however, disagrees with that assessment.

“The lack of information caused panic, because people didn’t know if they should evacuate,” Garrett says of the incident. “That’s the whole point of having text alerts and Amber alerts and such, so that you get to people quickly.”

After the incident, Garrett says she reached out to both the fire department and the city’s Office of Emergency Management, each of which were “very, very, very responsive” to her concerns regarding the lack of notification.

“I feel like they’re hearing us, which is important,” Garrett says. “They’ll be making changes so that there’s better communication and people can understand what’s going on.”

The city’s Office of Emergency Management Director Brian Williams tells SFR he was in a training class—one of the many responsibilities of his office—and didn’t hear the fire call go out that day. Regardless, he describes the decision as “a bit of a failure” for city leaders.

“Frankly, I think we could have—and should have—sent out an alert letting people know that the fire has been put out, that there may be smoke and fire trucks in the area, but that it’s a ‘don’t panic’ situation,” Williams says.

Indeed, Martinez says the team’s decision “triggered some extensive conversations” within the city regarding when to alert the public, adding the team will “take steps to make the notification regardless of the magnitude” of the emergency in the future.

Martinez and Williams noted several existing wildfire mitigation and response measures for residents, including the Know Your Zone website, which officials created after an evacuation analysis that looked at how traffic would flow out of various city neighborhoods, and efforts to help residents mitigate wildfire risk through home assessments.

Williams adds his office is working to receive funding this fall to set up an infrared camera at Nichols Dam that he says would also help address wildfire risk and preparedness by detecting heat.

“If it sees heat, it would then alert us through an email or through a text message, so it will enable us to monitor the watershed,” he says. “This is sort of a prototype effort…My sentiment regarding wildfire is, we really want to focus on early detection and early suppression, because I think it’s fair to say if evacuation—particularly rapid evacuation—was a high threat, it’s going to be really challenging here in Santa Fe.”

In the wake of the 2022 Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire near Mora, as well as 2020′s Medio Fire near Santa Fe, Garrett calls the recent fire scare “a wake up call” for the city and residents alike.

“I think we were lucky,” she says, noting the organization also raises awareness of wildfire risk and mitigation to neighbors. “If we had to evacuate, there aren’t a lot of ways in and out. I mean, depending on where the fire is, getting out is not going to be easy.”

Shields echoed Garrett’s sentiment, adding the option to get out might not have even been possible if circumstances were different.

“We were lucky it wasn’t windy,” she says. “Had it been a windy day and that thing took off, it could have closed both sides of the road and we would have been trapped in here.”

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