June 17--RUIDOSO -- Hearts have been broken and others filled with dread by the 13-day-old Little Bear Fire that destroyed 234 structures north of this mountain village, but locals said the wary dance with the lush forest will continue, despite the ongoing threats to life and property.
"This is one of the things you live with when you live in the mountains," said resident Grace Baker last week during one of her repeated visits to a spot where she was monitoring the size of a smoke column. "You live in Kansas, you live with tornadoes."
Local real estate broker Bill Pippin said that on Thursday, while containment of the fire was still only 40 percent, he showed a property to a family from Dallas who did not appear deterred by the smoke.
"You know, the mountains are always the mountains," Pippin said. "It's cooler here. ... You go 100 miles in any direction, and Ruidoso's always cooler."
Over the last decade, the village of Ruidoso has carried out a campaign to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire by pushing property owners to thin trees on private land.
In 2001 the Forest Service ranked Ruidoso the nation's second-most vulnerable community at risk of wildfire. Similarly, the state Forestry Division pegged the village, 12,000 residents surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest, as the New Mexico community most at risk of catastrophic wildfire.
The area has been beset by frightening wildfires over the last decade. Just last year, locals watched from U.S. 70 as the White Fire scorched 10,000 acres of the Lincoln National Forest, with flames menacing the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and casino. Two months later, the 10-acre Swallow Fire devoured eight homes in a hilly subdivision on the town's southwest corner that, had it gotten out of control, could have pushed north and east into the main body of the village.
Mayor Gus Raymond Alborn said that if the city had not promoted fire-wise policies, like raking up pine needles and creating a defensible space of about 30 feet around homes, the relatively small Swallow Fire "would have been a whole lot worse."
The village created its own Forestry Department about a decade ago to advise property owners, after on-site visits, about the steps needed to make their homes safer from fire.
Since 2004, Forestry Department director Dick Cooke said, the village has managed to get trees thinned on about 700 properties a year, in part with the threat of fines. About 6,500 acres of land have been treated over the last eight years. Treating the other half of the village is expected to take another seven or eight years, Cooke said.
While many Lincoln County residents complain about the thick stands of trees in the surrounding forest, Cooke noted that when the village embarked on the project, cutting a tree with a chest-high diameter greater than 5 inches required a local permit. "Nobody wanted to cut a tree," Cooke said. "People came from areas where there weren't trees."
Lincoln County does not have an ordinance similar to Ruidoso's mandating the creation of defensible space around homes. Such an ordinance was considered, but not adopted, in 2010.
"The general feeling in the commission is that it's more up to the individual person, like enlightened self-interest, and we don't want to have people forcing others to do it," said Lincoln County Commissioner Kathryn Minter, who represents the area where the Little Bear Fire swept through unincorporated communities.
Instead, as an incentive to homeowners, Lincoln County offers to defray up to 70 percent of the cost of fuel-reduction projects on private land with grant funds provided by the Forest Service and passed down through the state Forestry Division. This year, the grant for Lincoln County came to $261,000.
When the Ruidoso Downs City Council was asked in late May to consider adopting measures similar to Ruidoso's, the proposal met a chilly reception, according to a story in the Ruidoso News. The proposal called for removing branches within 15 feet of a chimney, cutting down standing dead trees and a ban on stacks of firewood within 10 feet of a structure.
Insurance companies are increasingly pressuring homeowners to reduce fire risks on private property or face the loss of coverage. "We do ask our homeowners to do what they can to mitigate that risk, and that is part of our underwriting evaluation," said Matt Brenner, a State Farm Fire and Casualty Insurance Co. claims manager.
Surrounding Ruidoso is the national forest, which grows thicker by the year. The White Mountain Wilderness Area north of Ruidoso where the Little Bear Fire began has not been treated at all in recent decades, and the last significant fire there, the 1986 Day Fire, burned only 643 acres, according to a spokesman for the fire management team.
Between 2000 and 2010, the Forest Service treated nearly 148,000 of the Smokey Bear District's 423,000 acres, either by thinning projects, prescribed burns or some other treatment program.
In February, the Forest Service sued Otero County in federal court over the county's claim that it could, in a time of emergency, carry out thinning projects in the national forest to reduce the risk of wildfires to mountain communities. In its answer, Otero County said forests "are in deplorable condition," blaming poor management by the Forest Service.
Former Ruidoso fire chief Tom Gavin said that a variety of factors have combined to create dangerous conditions, and decadeslong practices of suppressing wildfires is only one of them. Other factors, Gavin said, include prolonged drought, bark beetle infestation that thrives in dry conditions and kills trees, and the steep decline of the timber industry.
Meanwhile, new residential developments continue to push into heavily forested areas.
One especially vulnerable -- and popular -- section of town is the Upper Canyon area that follows the Ruidoso River and has only one way in and one way out. If a fire were to start at the entrance to the canyon, or a falling tree were to block the single road out during a wildfire, residents could be trapped. Upper Canyon is filled with more than 500 homes and cabins, Gavin said.
While it may not be a popular thing to say out loud these days, Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Doth noted that a wildfire is a natural part of a forest's life cycle that can promote healthier conditions. Doth made that observation after first pointing out "50 years of ... mismanagement" of national forests, exacerbated by ongoing drought.
"At this point in time, I think a fire is the only way to clean up a large area effectively at low cost," Doth said, adding, however, that current conditions make it nearly "impossible" to keep prescribed burns under control.
(c)2012 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
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