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NMSU and State Forestry Offer Free Guides on Fire-Defensible Landscaping

ALBUQUERQUE - As evidence mounts that fire-defensible landscaping saves homes - and sometimes lives - New Mexico State University and the State Forestry Division are stepping up their efforts to teach homeowners about fire safety in communities threatened by forest fires.

High Fire Risk: A property that is crowded with trees near the home has a high fire risk. "Ladder fuels" also clutter the entire yard, creating a combustible fuel canopy that would guide a fire right to the house. (07/23/2002) (Courtesy Photo by Bill Duemling)

"There are concrete, effective measures that homeowners can take to protect their property, so we're providing free educational materials and workshops to teach people about fire-defensible landscaping," said Bob Cain, forest entomologist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

For homes in woodland communities, fire defense basically means thinning trees on private property by up to 50 percent or more, cleaning up combustible debris from the ground and using fire-resistant vegetation like succulent plants and well-mowed lawns to act as buffers between forests and homes, Cain said. It also means constructing houses with noncombustible materials like stucco siding and metal roofing.

The goal is to remove "ladder fuels" on the ground that allow fires to burn hotter and climb into treetops, he said.

"We need to take away that abundance of fuel on properties so that the fire will go around houses rather than blaze its way straight towards a home," Cain said.

To teach homeowners about fire-defensible landscaping, Extension and the Forestry Division jointly developed three new publications that offer simple, how-to advice about managing property to reduce fire threats.

One publication explains how to set up wildfire buffer zones around a house with pockets of vegetation and sufficient spacing between trees to significantly reduce a fire's intensity and force flames out of canopies and back to the ground.

Another discusses fire-resistant plants that can slow fire's ability to travel across a property. Such plants tend to store water more efficiently, growing smaller leaves than other types of vegetation, Cain said. That, in turn, provides less fuel for fires. Some examples include New Mexico locust, netleaf hackberry, desert willow, New Mexico olive, algerita and soaptree yucca.

The third publication discusses inexpensive, slow-growing grass seed mixes that provide less fuel for a spreading fire. "We offer suggestions about grass species that adapt well to native landscapes but that don't grow so high," Cain said. "They will still burn, so homeowners need to keep lawns well mowed, but they're less flammable than a weedy lawn with tall grasses."

All three publications are available free through county Extension and State Forestry District offices, Cain said. They can also be downloaded from the NMSU Extension publications World Wide Web site at http://cahe.nmsu.edu/forestfire/.

NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics is currently constructing a Web page dedicated to forest fires and defensible landscaping. In addition to the three publications now available, the web site will contain more print and multimedia educational materials about forest ecology and fire, plus links to related sites.

Cain also developed a PowerPoint presentation that teaches how historical land use and misguided fire suppression policies during the last century have led to extreme tree density, poor forest health and high fire risks. The presentation is available free on computer disk by calling Cain at (505) 476-3351 or sending an e-mail to sacrops@nmsu.edu.

Meanwhile, Extension and the Forestry Division are co-sponsoring Fire-Wise workshops in at-risk communities around New Mexico with other local and state agencies. The workshops, which are free to the public, teach communities how to collectively defend against wildfires. The next workshop is scheduled for November in Jemez Springs. For more information, call forester Karen Lightfoot with the Forestry Division's Bernalillo District at (505) 867-2334.