Just a little more than a year ago, two large bosque fires raged in Valencia County, kicking off one of the earliest fire seasons in memory.

Valencia County Fire Chief Matt Propp says this year could be more of the same, with high winds keeping crews busy with a array of calls.

“What we’ve been running into, especially on high-wind days, is the magnitude of calls. At one point, we had close to 70 calls pending, everything from downed power lines to fires to (medical) calls,” Propp said.

To keep a handle on things, the department has taken the proactive step of bringing a wildland fire crew in and keeping them on duty for extra hours on red flag, high-wind days.

“We have two extra trucks for rapid wildland response,” the chief said. “On high-wind days, when trees blow down, they can go out and cut them, which kept other units available for wrecks, fires and medical calls.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Valencia County Fire Wildland Capt. Rob Barr directs fire crews from Valencia County and the cities of Belen and Rio Communities as they battle a brush fire on Jarales Road about a mile south of Belen early Tuesday afternoon. The fire, estimated at about 10 acres, was contained within a few hours.

April is expected to have higher than normal fire behavior, Propp said, with two large wild fires — the Hilton Fire at 187 acres in Socorro County and the Echo Ridge Fire in Torrance County at 167 acres — already this month. The Echo Ridge Fire is 100 percent contained and the Hilton Fire is at 90 percent containment, with 100 percent anticipated by Friday.

A typical year sees March bringing in high winds and heavy pollen, along with rain fall that increases the growth of underbrush and other fuels.

“Then that stops and we get warmer temperatures. What we’re not seeing yet is the release of the snow pack and runoff; we’re not going to see that until May or June,” the fire chief said. “Because of that, April is still going to be worse than normal. Typically in May, June and July, there are more favorable conditions but we’re certainly not out of risk. I think a lot of times people see reports from the National Weather Service that drought conditions are better for Valencia County and make the translation that we’re out of danger. We aren’t.”

Propp said the most helpful thing people can do is to double check whether it’s a designated burn day for the county before they start to burn.

“When we set burn days, there’s a lot of information that goes into that — critical fire reports, NWS information, environmental reports. All of that gives us a good idea if it’s not a safe day,” he said. “That being said, even on burn days conditions can change. The key to responsible burning is to have a water source immediately available. If the winds pick up, extinguish the fire.

“I understand agricultural burning is important and we support it. We want to make sure people do it smart.”

Another proactive measure people can take is to immediately report fires, particularly in the bosque.

“We want to get those calls quickly. That’s where we’re going to deploy resources really quickly to get in and locate and control the fire before it spreads,” the chief said. “If we get a report of a bosque or wildfire, we are going to be flooding it with resources. Put a ton on it right away to keep it from being another Big Hole or Simona fire.”

Property owners should do an assessment of their property, Propp said, so they are prepared for high-wind events in the county.

“If you have power lines over your back fence, check for overgrown brush. If lines come down and spark, it’s definitely going to start a fire if there are high weeds, grass or trash,” he said. “There are easy ways to reduce and prevent fires.”

The department has recently purchased two new Type III fire engines, which are specifically designed for wildland/urban interface fire fighting.

“They are shorter and four-wheel drive. They are meant for places like the bosque. We are picking up the first one at the end of this month. No one else in the county has them. It’s a new tool for our toolbox,” Propp said.

The county fire department also implemented a drone program last year, which can provide infrared and real-time video of a fire.

“By deploying the drone team, it gives us the opportunity to get to an area quickly and get eyes on it, see how big the fire is …”

The infrared imaging can find hot spots that might not be seen from the ground for crews to chase down.

“Hopefully, with all these things, we will be able to reduce the impact of any of these fires,” the chief said.

The county wide burn line — 505-866-2036 — is an automated service to let Valencia County residents know whether they can do open burning on a daily basis.

The Valencia County Fire Department also posts burn/no burn day notices every evening for the following day on its Facebook page.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.