ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – If you’ve been to New Mexico during wildfire season, you know the all too familiar smell of smoke in the air and the sound of fire trucks rushing to the scene of another wildfire in New Mexico. You probably remember the fires in the Jemez Mountains, the fires near Ruidoso, or the blazes in the Albuquerque foothills from years past. But have you ever wondered which communities are most at risk from fire damage?
Wildfire researchers certainly have. In fact, it’s a question the US Forest Service has been studying for years now.
In 2018, the US Congress asked the Forest Service to create a map of the United States showing which communities were most at risk from wildfires. The latest figures are from 2020. They combine data from several sources, such as population data from the US Census Bureau, with computer simulations of wildfires. Here’s what the latest maps reveal about the potential for destructive fires in New Mexico.
Across New Mexico, on average, homes are at greater risk of damage from wildfires than in 78% of other states, the data shows. This means that for homes in populated areas of New Mexico, there is not only a relatively high probability of wildfires reaching homes, but those fires are also likely to be relatively intense.
Greg Dillon, director of the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab’s Fire Modeling Institute, used the data to create hazard maps. “Essentially, it shows us a map of where our fire-prone landscapes are in the United States and where the ecosystems that can burn are,” he says.
Homes in New Mexico are, on average, more at risk than homes in Colorado. But at a lower risk than homes in Arizona, the data shows. In New Mexico, of course, some communities are more at risk than others.
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Western states tend to have relatively higher wildfire danger zones for homes. Picture: United States Forest Service.
Large forest areas mean major risk
“We tend to think of forests when we think of wildfires, but it’s not just forests,” Dillon says. “They are also shrubs in California. It could be chaparral shrubs in the southwest. In the Great Basin, it could be different kinds of sagebrush. Even some desert scrub landscapes are seeing more fire because we have invasive weeds in some of these southwestern ecosystems.
New Mexico has several wildfire-prone ecosystems. Of course, wood from the forest can burn, especially if it is dry (think firewood). But grass is also a potential fuel. And parts of the state have chaparral shrublands, which are often made up of rocky terrain dotted with shrubbery. They are also potential sources of fuel. In 2017, the Tiffany Fire burned more than 9,000 acres of chaparral brush near Socorro, according to Southwest Coordination Center records.
Of all the ecosystems in New Mexico, major forests generally create greater wildfire risks than desert basins. After all, forests can be filled with fuel high and low, including living and dead vegetation.
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Data shows that forest and grassland regions of New Mexico have a high probability of wildfire. Here, a darker red indicates a higher annual probability of wildfire. Data: US Forest Service; Google Earth satellite images.
This means that Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico, Lincoln National Forest in the southern part of the state, and Santa Fe National Forest in northern New Mexico are particularly susceptible to suffering. wildfires, according to data from the US Forest Service. The likelihood of a forest fire burning in an area generally increases near the center of those forests. But the edges of forest areas are always at high risk.
These edges of forests could offer beautiful views to owners. But unfortunately, the areas, where the developments extend into the forest areas, are at high risk of wildfires, according to the data.
For example, many homes in Ruidoso, New Mexico are at higher risk due to their location. When you overlay a map of wildfire risk – including fire probability, potential fire intensity and potential fire exposure – with the recent McBride fire, it is clear that the damage could have been much worse, given the risks.
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Much of the Ruidoso community is at relatively high risk of wildfire impacts. Here, yellow indicates areas affected by the 2022 McBride Fire and red indicates areas of at-risk housing units. Data: US Forest Service and Southwest Region Incident Management Team; Google Earth satellite images.
Ruidoso ranks relatively high in wildfire risk for homes compared to other communities in New Mexico. In fact, U.S. Forest Service data ranks Ruidoso-populated areas as at greater risk than 95% of all communities in New Mexico. And Ruidoso’s at-risk homes tend to be directly exposed to wildfires due to surrounding vegetation, the data shows.
Communities such as Aragon, New Mexico are at even greater risk. This sparsely populated area at the northern end of the Gila Mountains has a wildfire risk greater than 98% of all communities in New Mexico. In fact, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history happened about 40 miles south of Aragon in 2012.
Population and risk
A relatively small portion of the state’s population lives in the most at-risk areas. But even urban areas like Albuquerque are potentially at risk from wildfires.
Albuquerque’s North Bosque is particularly at risk from the impacts of wildfires, the data shows. The southern valley and the heights in the far northeast are also high-risk areas.
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Around Albuquerque, wildfire risk for homes is highest in the North Bosque, Northeast Foothills, and South Valley. Pink indicates high risk. Data: United States Forest Service. Underlying images created by MRCOG and Bohannan Huston, Inc. via UNMRGIS.
The bosque, of course, is no stranger to fire. In fact, 2022 has already caused several fires in and around the Albuquerque Bosque. KRQE News 13 previously reported details of a fire on April 18 near homes along Riverview Drive. And on April 20, Simona Fire in Jarales broke out in the Valencia County bosque.
Building resilience to reduce risk
The US Forest Service didn’t just collect wildfire risk data for fun. The data is intended to help communities better prepare for and mitigate wildfire risk, Dillon says.
And there are specific things homeowners in at-risk areas can do. Here are some tips from Dillon and the US Forest Service (more info can be found here).
- Keep flammables away from your home. “Right against the house, you want to make sure you don’t have flammable materials like your woodpile,” Dillon says.
- If possible, use fire-resistant landscaping. “Try to have non-flammable mulch around the very structure of your home,” he says. And you might want to consider removing some branches from trees around your home, he adds.
- “Harden” your house. This actually means using building materials intended to prevent hot embers from igniting your home. “The type of materials you choose to build a deck with, the type of windows you have, the type of siding you have, the roofing material you have, all of these things affect the flammability of your home a lot if it happens to be in the way of a forest fire,” Dillon says.
*Editor’s Note: Full quote of fire hazard data as follows:
Scott, Joe H.; Brough, April M.; Gilbertson-Day, Julie W.; Dillon, Gregory K.; Moran,
Christopher. Wildfire risk for communities: Spatial datasets of wildfire risk for communities
regions in the United States. Fort Collins, CO: Forest Service Research Data Archive.