Even though it’s just the beginning of the official fire season in Valencia County, fires have plagued the area since the beginning of the year.

In the past three months, volunteer firefighters have responded to 178 brush fires and 19 structure fires. Eight of the structure fires were attributed to out-of-control brush fires.

In the last month alone, 12 homes were destroyed by flames and, of those, six were the result of out-of-control brush fires, said Valencia County Deputy Fire Marshal Charles Eaton.

Eaton said he’s concerned with the number of fires which have swept through fields, brush and homes this year. Last year, 74 homes were consumed by fire and smoke.

“We averaged about six structure fires a month last year,” Eaton said last week. “This year, we’re still at that same rate, but it’s growing. We’re not actually in the fire season right now, and I’m hoping in the next two or three months, when we normally do see more fires, that we won’t be as busy as we have been.”

Eaton said the Valencia County fire marshal’s office is still contemplating the idea of not allowing people to burn here.

“A good majority of our county residents are aware of the hazards, but there’s those few who aren’t following the procedures we’ve established,” he said. “Slowly, we’re educating the residents, and people are realizing they need to call to see about burn days.”

The Tomé-Adelino Fire De-partment is also hoping to educate the public about the dangers of wildfires in Valencia County. With the help of a grant, the volunteer fire department hosted a fire protection presentation.

Cathy Dickey, a team leader at the fire department, advised the group, during the first presentation, to think before they act.

“There are several hundred homes on both sides of the bosque, and, even with mutual aid from neighboring fire districts, we simply cannot station a full crew at every home to protect it,” Dickey said.

The volunteer firefighter said a home with the best chances of not being destroyed is one that has a defensible space around it.

So what should a homeowner do to provide defensible space? Keep at least 30 feet around your home “lean, clean and green,” Dickey said. Landscaping should be kept to a minimum, and yards should be kept clutter-free.

A little forethought about what is around a house, including construction, landscaping and maintenance, will help keep a home from catching fire. Dickey said roofs are the most vulnerable part of the structure.

“When you do start a fire, you need to pay attention to what’s above you and what’s downwind from you,” Dickey suggests. “Pay attention to trees because the wind can pick up and the embers could travel to your neighbor’s home.”

One of worst hazards, if not the largest, is the wind that blows through Valencia County. Dickey said the winds are the reason for the high number of out-of-control burns.

“Fire can be a useful tool, and I don’t have a problem with farmers burning their fields as a means of weed and pest control,” she said. “But fire can be very destructive, and we all have to be very careful about what gets lit.”

Two years ago, the Valencia County Fire Marshal’s office set a policy requiring people to call the sheriff’s dispatch to ask if it was safe to burn on any particular day. Dickey said the fire departments encourage people to call not only to get the correct information, but so firefighters will know where a controlled burn will be.

Dickey warned the audience to be careful with the ashes from fireplaces. She advises putting ashes in a metal container rather than in cardboard boxes.

“If you used the fireplace within the last three weeks, there are probably some hot embers still in there,” she said.

The team leader also sent a message to smokers.

“Always use the ashtray in your vehicle,” Dickey said. “Every year in this county, we get one or two instances of car fires. We’ve seen smokers tend to set their own vehicles on fire.”

Dickey explained when someone throws their burning cigarette out of the window, it could fly back into the car. Another reason why people shouldn’t throw their cigarettes out of the window is because of the dry conditions along the roadways.

“Although it probably won’t happen because the life of the cigarette won’t make it to the side of the road, there still is a danger,” Dickey said. “Now, on narrow country roads where you don’t have much of a shoulder, the chances of making it to the dry grass is much greater than on the freeway.”

Dickey said this is one of the worst fire seasons she’s seen in several years. She said this year is worse than 2000, when the Complex Fires scorched miles of bosque woodland.

“We’re cranking up already, and we’re seeing the extreme fire behavior already,” she said. “Our average calls are about 15 to 18 a month, and, last month, we had 26. This month, we’re already approaching 50.”

Most of the calls this month have been to illegal burns or where fires have gotten out of control.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.