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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Wildfires should cause concern, but are nothing new to arid southwest

As fire crews work to control more than a dozen massive wildfires in southern California, researchers at New Mexico State University are warning fire danger is something of which everyone in the southwestern United States should be aware.

"This is not an unusual thing. It's natural for fires to burn when the right conditions combine, whether you're in California or New Mexico," said Terrell "Red" Baker, a researcher and Cooperative Extension specialist at NMSU. He has studied wildfires in New Mexico for more than seven years.

Prime wildfire conditions form in what researchers call the "fire behavior triangle." When the right weather mixes with the right topography and the right amount of fuels or natural flammable vegetation, there is a good chance fire will follow.

"This is southern California's peak season for dry conditions," said Doug Cram, an NMSU researcher and Extension specialist. "The natural vegetation in that area is highly flammable and burns very hot. When you add the fast moving Santa Ana winds and steep slopes you see in that region, you get the conditions we have right now."

"The Southwest is an arid environment where wet and dry cycles are common," said Cram. "Wet periods promote fuel buildup, and that fuel is likely to burn during subsequent dry periods, particularly when you add wind to the equation."

Cram noted while New Mexico and California have different vegetation and different kinds of terrain, the chances of a major fire in both states are present every year.

"If we get a dry spring in New Mexico, where some small fires start, those areas with fuel load concerns should be very cautious," said Cram. "People who live in fire-prone areas should be prepared."

Both researchers point to prescribed burns, defensible space and tree thinning as tools to help reduce the intensity of major fire events, especially with more and more people choosing to move to areas where large fires can start.

"I think we need to understand, fire is a part of the world we live in," Baker said. "Much of the vegetation in this area evolved with fire."

He said historically, the Southwest had natural fires on a regular basis, which thinned fuels and made high intensity fires less frequent. When areas become overgrown and thick with fuels, it is difficult to put out fires.

Both researchers say in New Mexico, it is a good idea to be educated about fire risks. They recommend for people living in fire-prone areas to create defensible space by removing flammable vegetation and materials around homes. This gives firefighters a better chance of defending homes against wildfires. They also say to visit with New Mexico State Forestry, Cooperative Extension, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials for more tips of reducing the risk of fire where you live.

You also can visit http://www.firewise.org to learn more about protecting your home and property.