Although spring has just barely begun, fire personnel across Valencia County are already into fire season and responding to wildland fires. 

Valencia County Fire Chief Matt Propp said the beginning of fire season is typically when higher fire behavior risk can be anticipated due to increasing temperatures and winds and decreasing humidity. 

“Conditions that basically makes an opportunity for rapidly progressing fires, particularly in areas with brush, grass and trees,” Propp said. “As we get into summer, the hot winds dry up ground fuels super quick. So now we have dry fuel on the ground and it only takes a small fire that runs into something larger, a bosque fire for example.” 

Photo courtesy of Valencia County Fire Department
Valencia County Fire Department wildland crews were among those who helped with a wildfire on the Pueblo of Isleta last week, Monday, March 11. VCFD Fire Chief Matt Propp said the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

This is the time of year when homeowners begin cleaning up their properties after the winter doldrums, and Propp said there are precautions they should take. 

If it’s a burn day, make manageable piles of what you are going to burn — weeds, leaves, brush and so on — and make sure there is a water supply close at hand. 

“And we don’t mean a garden hose at your house if you’re burning 200 yards away. It needs to be a (water) source at the site of the fire,” Propp said. “No unattended burning. You do need to be present. 

“We are also reminding people this year you, as a property owner, are responsible for ensuring a fire is completely out. If you don’t and a fire yesterday causes a fire today, we will be issuing citations,” the chief said. “We have seen this drastic increase in fires threatening houses and other structures that are becoming resource intensive and taking us away from the rest of the calls. These are preventable and that’s the big part.” 

To make your property less susceptible to fires, Propp recommends removing overgrown brush and weeds on your property and keeping grass and other flammable items away from structures. 

“You don’t want to create a fuel line up to your house and structures,” he said. “People can start now by clearing up weeds, maybe xeriscaping around their homes to slow fire.” 

In addition to homeowners burning, Propp said agriculture burning is happening across the county, which means Valencia County’s fire season starts a bit earlier than other locations. 

“We are very aware that people need to do field burning for the agricultural season and we try to be respectful of that,” he said. “Because of that, our fire season starts earlier than most of the state and we see what we refer to as ‘ag escape’ fires.  

“You’re burning a field and it kicks into the next field or the bosque. That’s unintentional, obviously, but if we do end up with a big fire, we typically have a lot of resources available early in the season.” 

Every day the Valencia County Fire Department determines whether it’s a “burn” or “no burn” day in the county. The National Weather Service predictive modeling is used, as well as wind speeds, humidity and temperature, in order to determine whether open burning can happen. 

“We also look at the whole period. The question we get is, ‘It’s a nice, sunny day, so why can’t we burn?’ It might be nice and sunny for the next five hours but we’re expecting a front with winds that can kick up a fire, so we want to mitigate that and call a ‘no burn’ day,” the chief said.  

Another factor Propp and his staff consider is resource availability.  

“If there is a large fire already in the bosque, with a lot of resources (manpower and equipment) already committed, it’s not worth the risk tomorrow to allow burning,” he said. “We have to take that into consideration, particularly as we go later into the season.” 

While it is the county fire department that makes the call on whether it’s a burn day or not, the five municipalities within the county have agreed to abide by that determination, as has the Pueblo of Isleta for the most part, the chief said. 

“Isleta is it’s own jurisdiction and can set their own rules. As a courtesy, they typically follow our burn/no burn determinations,” Propp said.  

VCFD and multiple other agencies responded to a fire on the pueblo on Monday, March 11, which was an allowed burn day, but the cause of the fire has not been determined, the chief said. 

“Monday’s fire is still under investigation and I’m not sure it was the result of someone burning,” Propp said. “I think people inherently jump to someone was burning and started a fire.” 

Propp said departments across the state are seeing fire activity all the way into October, whereas in the past the season typically ended around August. 

“Please be smart when burning,” the chief concluded. “If it’s a burn day and winds come up, put out the fire. Just because it’s a burn day, doesn’t mean those conditions are going to last all day. Monitor conditions and be responsible for your fire. It’s common sense.” 

The county-wide burn line to call to find out whether it’s a burn day or not is 505-500-8679. Open burning can begin one hour after sunrise and should be finished one hour before sunset on allowed burn days. 

The city of Belen and village of Los Lunas require residents to obtain a burn permit from their respective fire departments before any open burns are performed on allowed burn days. The rest of the municipalities don’t require a permit for open burning on burn days. 

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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.