A spark from a trailer chain dragging on Old Las Vegas Highway near Harry's Roadhouse southeast of Santa Fe pops over into dry grass. It's 90 degrees outside and a wind out of the south is blowing a mild 14 miles per hour, barely enough to flutter a flag on a pole.
The spark fans into a small flame and crackles through grass, brush and a tree within minutes. Within an hour, the fire has burned nine acres and is headed toward houses.
Five hours later, 40 acres have burned, the wind has kicked up to 32 miles an hour and a blowing ember has sparked a new fire less than a mile away near Double Arrow Road. After 11 hours, the two fires are burning a combined 331 acres.
Firefighters are trying both to fight the fires and evacuate residents from the scattered houses, driving one narrow, sometimes steep, winding dirt dead-end road after another to reach them. "Our main concern becomes getting people out and not fighting the fire," said Krys Nystrom, Santa Fe County wildfire prevention specialist.
The scenario isn't real. Yet.
But it wouldn't take much for it to happen, Nystrom said.
This scene is playing out on a Simbox, a simulation "sandbox" rigged with 3-D imaging, a special camera and topographic maps at a Santa Fe County Fire Department office. The Simbox, invented by Santa Fe-based RedFish Group, lets fire officials layer topography and road maps with weather information to simulate the way a fire will burn.
"It is based on science," Nystrom said.
La Barbaria is an extreme wildfire risk area, according to the county. About 200 homes are scattered among the thickly wooded piñon, juniper and Ponderosa pine trees on hilly terrain. The area encompasses several single-lane dirt roads along Old Las Vegas Highway between the Steaksmith at El Gancho and the turnoff to U.S. 84/285 and Eldorado.
If a fire gets away in this area, "It will be another Las Conchas, or worse" Nystrom said. Las Conchas blew through 42,000 acres of the Jemez Mountains in 14 hours in June.
"It could go right into the Santa Fe [Municipal] Watershed," said Santa Fe County fire prevention captain Buster Patty.
The perfect set of circumstances for such a catastrophic fire is too close for comfort. The forests are dry, so dry that a lightning strike can even start a live tree smoldering, as happened in Edgewood last week, Patty said.
Last year alone, volunteer and county firefighters managed to corral two trash fires, several lightning-caused fires, and fires sparked by cigarette butts and dragging camper trailer chains.
Firefighters call La Barbaria a wildland urban interface. There are dozens of them across Santa Fe County and a growing number in the country as people move into undeveloped, forested or heavily vegetated areas, often close to national forests or other public lands.
They present a particularly difficult, dangerous and expensive kind of firefighting challenge. Firefighters have to be able to fight both structural and wildland fires. They require different equipment, skills and planning.
Houses built in these areas are often isolated, on rough roads, have few or no water sources nearby and often have vegetation backed right up to houses and outdoor structures.
No one thinks much about preparing their houses to withstand fires until they see smoke in the air, Patty said.
And by that time it can be too late.
When fire does start, panicked homeowners can make firefighters' jobs difficult. When jumper cables sparked a fire on private property in Chimayó a few weeks ago, people poured out of their homes. Hundreds were standing along the road watching or shouting at firefighters as they arrived, said fire prevention specialist Mike Feulner. Cars were parked along the road, blocking the way.
Two firefighters were hit or shoved by angry residents who felt they didn't get to the fire fast enough, said Patty.
Nystrom has driven to every home in La Barbaria and assessed it for wildfire risks. The assessments go on a map. Bright red means the property is a high wildfire risk and often means the homeowner has done little or nothing to create a defensible space around the house. "People think we're just going to get in and save their house," Nystrom said. "No, we may not be able to."
"If they're deep in the trees, on a narrow road, it puts firefighters in danger," Patty said. "We're not going to sacrifice a firefighter to save a house."
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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