[Editor's Note: This is part 1 of a combined report on the work meeting and regular sessions of the Grant County Commission this week. It addresses the fire season prediction report by the Gila National Forest fire staff officer.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
Grant County commissioners at their work session on Tuesday, March 6, 2018 heard a report of present and predicted fire conditions for the area from Gabe Holguin, Gila National Forest fire staff officer. He talked about the Southwest Coordination Center, located in Albuquerque. SWCC is the logistical and decision support center for wildland firefighting in New Mexico, southwest Arizona and federal units in West Texas. It mobilizes resources for wildland fire, prescribed fire and all risk incidents, according to its website.
"They look at factors, such as drought, the fine fuels component, seasonal set up and fire ignition and spread," Holguin said. "The onset of the monsoon season is the end of fire season."
He noted that drought has increased from west to east over the past five to six months. "We expect the drought to persist at least through May, which will impact fine fuels. The fine fuels we have now are a carryover from 2017. As we have a spring green up, it will increase the fine fuels. It doesn't take long for them to cure up and become dry. In the piñon-juniper areas, we have more fine fuels. We expect normal to above normal fine fuels. From mid-November to mid-February we had mild temperatures and we're way below normal in snowpack. It's zero to none on snowpack. February was warm and dry, but we did see a bit of precipitation, which has delayed by about three weeks our fire season. But it also promotes fine fuels with the two- to four-inches of rain we had."
Holguin said the area is moving away from a La Niña. "If we get to neutral, the weather is harder to predict. It could swing either way. The potential alternate pattern is not likely to move to cooler and more precipitation. We expect the monsoon to come at the normal time, between July 4 and 10. We may move more into drought potential. The dry mild winter might continue, and more precipitation is not likely. We expect the monsoon to be on time and normal. What does it mean with the potential for an active fire season in May and June? We hope to do prescribed burns ahead of that. Typically, we do burns from 5,000 acres to 25,000 acres. We are able to do so, but we have to have the right conditions within the right parameters or we don't do them."
"We are trying to burn some of the woody debris on the ground to reduce wildfire and increase forbs for wildlife," Holguin continued. "We are looking at trying to do a prescribed burn of about 20,000 acres north of Beaverhead. We're on track, although the rains set us back. We're looking at April. Tracking fuel moistures, right now we're not close to prescription. We can't get it to burn, so we're a month behind. We try to burn on the shoulder season. We're not there yet. We will get there unless we get more precipitation. We will have only a short window of opportunity. We also keep track of lightning. We have seen a decrease in lightning-caused fires from 250 down to 40 to 50 a year. Human-caused fires, we don't typically see too much of a problem because we have a prevention program. It's all about practicing good campfire etiquette."
He said the variable is lightning in May from dry thunderstorms. "We have the potential to be active with the warmer and drier conditions. We're already preparing for fire season. Typically, we try to reach out to the counties. We have a meeting March 26 in Catron County to get all the cooperators to the table. We talk about resources. We like to have the representative from the National Weather Service from Santa Teresa, Tom Bird, attend."
"Randy (Villa, county General Services director and fire management officer) and I work together," Holguin said. "I hope to meet soon with Grant County cooperating agencies, as well as with Sierra County. We have internal meetings to look at areas of concern. Fire is an effective tool to manage the landscape."
He said the Forest Service had begun to get everyone prepared for fire season. "We have nine engines, four 10-person hand crews, two Hot Shot crews-the Silver City Hotshots and the Negrito Hotshots. We have 20 smokejumpers arriving around May 18. We don't have an air tanker here, but we can get one as needed to preposition here. We have two helicopters on contract-one light helicopter and one Type 1 with the capability of carrying 2,000 gallons of water. The dispatch center is up and running and the Silver City Hotshots are available as of today (Tuesday, March 6, 2018)."
Grant County Commissioner Brett Kasten asked: "Do we still have the capability to refill with retardant?"
"The P2Bs have mostly transitioned to jetted aircraft," Holguin said. "They need a longer runway than we have. Some we can do here, but sometimes we have to download them when the tarmac is 120 degrees for several hours a day."
Kasten asked where the jets come from, and Holguin said the DC-10s and 737s come from Phoenix Gateway, Albuquerque or Roswell.
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos congratulated Holguin on his son's state championship.
The next article will address the options for parcel map corrections in the Assessor's office.