Twice, Tim Timmerman and his wife, Joni Parman, have stood on the patio of their home in the steep, wooded foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and watched an inferno sweep down on Los Alamos across the valley.
The 2000 Cerro Grande Fire incinerated more than 200 homes in Los Alamos proper. Last June's Las Conchas Fire torched more than 60 homes in Jemez mountain villages.
"There's no doubt in our minds it can happen here," Timmerman said. "I bet there's a lot of those people in Los Alamos who said, 'Ah, it could never happen here.' "
The couple, and other Hyde Park Estates residents, thinned piñon trees and cleared brush almost a decade ago to make the subdivision less vulnerable to wildfire.
But trees and brush grow back. People forget the fire hazards. They pile firewood and combustible patio furniture next to their homes or on wood porches.
So in the last couple of weeks, the Timmermans and other Hyde Park neighbors have again been thinning trees and prepping their properties to withstand wildfires.
Not all the residents agree with thinning trees, or can afford to do so. Their properties remain thickly wooded and a high fire risk to them and their neighbors.
Hyde Park Estates and several surrounding subdivisions, including Upper Canyon Road, La Barberia southeast of Santa Fe and Apache Ridge, are among the highest wildfire risk areas in Santa Fe County and the city.
They are part of a growing trend -- people building houses on the fringes of national forests or other public lands, called the wildland urban interface. One report estimated there are more than 24,800 houses in New Mexico's wildland urban interface, and a third of those are seasonal.
The public costs of preventing wildfires from torching houses in these zones has skyrocketed into the millions of dollars, taking up a hefty chunk of the U.S. Forest Service budget. A federal firefighting audit in 2006 called for local governments, states and private property owners to step up and take more responsibility, both for protecting their houses and covering the costs of the wildfires that threaten them.
A fast-moving wildfire presents other issues for developments on the edge of wildlands and national forests. Who will alert homeowners? Will they be able to get out if they live on narrow one-lane roads? Is there enough available water to help the first firefighters on the scene? If smoke and fire block the only access out, then what?
"We're talking about life and death," said Timmerman, a retired Sandia Lab engineer.
Not on the radar
When Melvin Goering and his wife moved to Hyde Park Estates in 1974, no one was talking wildfires. "Frankly, fire was not high on anyone's radar," he said.
There were few houses then among the juniper, piñon and ponderosa pines and rocky, steep hills along Hyde Park Road. New Mexico was enjoying a fair amount of snow and rain. The state's forests grew thicker. Goering was on the subdivision's architectural committee and later the water association board. "We spent more time worrying about water drainage than about combustible fuels on properties," he said.
Parman agreed. "We never thought about fires."
Then drought began. Bark beetles killed thousands of trees around Santa Fe. "I cut more than 100 trees [killed by beetles]," Goering said. "It was a blessing in disguise. It got rid of a lot of combustible materials."
In 2000, a prescribed burn in Bandelier National Monument jumped fire lines and caused the 42,000-acre Cerro Grande Fire. Other big fires burned around the state.
Wildfires were very much on everyone's radar.
A Firewise community
Santa Fe city and county fire officials and Santa Fe National Forest began concerted efforts to assess the wildfire risks of neighborhoods. They created fire risk maps. They approached Hyde Park Estates in 2004 about trying a new national wildfire prevention program called Firewise, a multi-agency effort.
Tom Alesi, a Santa Fe real estate broker who built a home in Hyde Park Estates 36 years ago, said the community "bought into it big time."
National forest and fire staff helped participating property owners assess wildfire risks. Residents pruned, raked, clipped and cut vegetation. They created "defensible spaces" around their homes, designed to reduce the risk of a ground fire creeping up into treetops or a crown fire from igniting an adjacent porch. A couple of houses -- on hilltops, with wide driveways and stone fences as fire breaks, like Alesi's -- were designated safe houses in case residents couldn't get out and needed a place to go. "Firewise is a good compromise between the 'burn the forest to save the forest' and the 'do nothing and hope nothing bad happens' attitude," said Alesi. "It puts the responsibility on the homeowner."
Hyde Park was named one of the first recognized Firewise communities and appeared in a book about the program.
Then, "We stopped thinking about the trees growing back," Alesi said.
Hyde Park was taken off the list of Firewise communities in 2006. The program requires an annual work day and a report to show a community is continuing to maintain defensible spaces. But Alesi, Goering and others want to put Hyde Park Estates, now under city fire jurisdiction, back on the list.
Participation in Firewise was voluntary then, as it will be this time. The subdivision doesn't have a neighborhood association with legal authority to force property owners to join in. The county has an urban wildland interface code, but it doesn't require property owners of existing homes to create defensible space around houses.
Krys Nystrom, the county's fire prevention specialist and an experienced firefighter, said Firewise is most effective when a whole community takes part in the program. "If your neighbor is not going to thin his property, it won't do as much good if you just thin yours," she said.
Nystrom and some of the Hyde Park residents interviewed agreed there were a number of reasons people don't thin.
"Apache Ridge, La Barberia and others, people moved out there to get away from others," Nystrom said. "They're leery of government intervention. They may be leery of working together."
About a third of the houses or more in New Mexico's wildland urban interface are only used seasonally, and their absentee owners may not be aware of the high fire risks.
Some lack resources or physical strength to thin. Once trees are cut they have to be hauled up or down hill to a truck. Pitch-laden piñons can weigh hundreds of pounds. "It is hard work," Timmerman said.
For some, it is emotional. When Timmerman was cutting down a piñon recently, he looked up and saw his wife watching him. She was crying. "I hate seeing trees cut. But the trees we have remaining are healthier," she said. "It is just a reality we have to do, from my perspective. But, I get used to it."
There's the question of how to create a defensible space without ruining the property's looks. "How do you do this in a way that protects you but keeps the aesthetic beauty?" Goering said.
Nystrom said there's plenty of information on how to do it right. Creating a defensible space doesn't mean clear-cutting every tree and shrub in sight.
It means thinking like a fire.
Fire in mind
Fire gets around by crawling along the ground, climbing into trees and wooden structures, and flinging hot embers sometimes miles away from the main blaze. Fire likes to run up hills. In hill and canyon terrain, wind can swirl chaotically, throwing hot embers in unexpected directions and for long distances. Terrain, vegetation moisture and relative humidity are the other factors that affect a wildfire.
Discouraging fire requires breaking up the fuel that feeds it.
Creating spaces between large trees, trimming lower branches to a few feet above the ground and keeping weeds or grass mowed down, prevents a fire from climbing up the tree. Once in tree crowns, a fire can move more quickly. Moving wood piles and other combustible materials at least 30 feet from propane tanks and structures reduces fire risks.
Firewise provides a checklist for property owners to make their spaces less wildfire prone. The program recommends removing all flammable materials in a 10-foot-wide swath around a house.
What's critical is assessing the property each year and maintaining the defensible space, said Nystrom.
Calculating the cost
The size, frequency and intensity of wildfires has increased in the last two decades. In 2011 alone, New Mexico and Arizona each had their largest wildfires in at least a century. Both fires burned down homes.
The costs of fighting wildfires and helping communities recover after them has also increased.
A 2006 report by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General found the cost to suppress wildfires had surpassed $1 billion in three of six years between 2002 and 2006. That doesn't include other costs associated with wildfires, such as flood damage, rehabilitating land and replacing homes.
Putting out the Cerro Grande Fire cost $33.5 million. All other costs associated with the fire ran more than $900 million. The cost of suppressing the 156,000-acre Las Conchas Fire alone was an estimated $39.2 million, and the Pacheco Fire cost $9.3 million.
"While the Forest Service spends record amounts protecting private landowners from advancing wildfires, these individuals have done little to protect themselves," the Inspector General's report said. "Homeowner reliance on the Federal government to provide wildfire suppression services places an enormous financial burden on [the agency]."
The Inspector General urged state and local governments to step up regulations over wildland urban development. "Federal agencies do not have the power to regulate WUI development. Zoning and planning authority rests entirely with state and local governments."
Timmerman and Parman have done what they can to prepare. They hope others living in the subdivisions hidden by piñon and juniper will do the same. Last year, when the Pacheco Fire started near the Santa Fe ski basin, they thought it was headed for them.
"It can happen so fast when it is that dry. It just blows up," said Parman.
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