Ruidoso and Los Alamos have become the poster child for fire preparedness, although both communities probably aspire to other distinctions. And Albuquerque last year gained the corporate headquarters of an air tanker service, although it probably wasn't chasing this kind of economic development.
It tells us that wildfire is part of living here. Most of us accept that, and we're getting better at trying to reduce the impact.
The Greater Eastern Jemez Wildlife-Urban Interface Corridor was the first New Mexico member of Firewise Communities USA in 2002. Ruidoso was second in 2003. Other members are scattered around the state, from Reserve to Angel Fire.
Our rising awareness is just in time for Smokey Bear's 70th birthday on August 9. Even the iconic New Mexico native has changed his message. It's now, "Only you can prevent wildfires." (For a public event, I once spent an afternoon in a furry suit as Smokey. All the children from Acoma and Laguna pueblos hugged Smokey. It was lovely.) Today, Smokey has 180,000 friends on Facebook and his own website.
We've learned that the fires are bigger and burn hotter, and fire season is longer. Experts who predict fire seasons build worsening drought into their models and have come to expect increasing severity. The experts have also gotten better at amassing information and making its data and predictions available. Check out nmfireinfo.com. So far, the Southwest Coordination Center predicts a normal year for New Mexico, keeping in mind that "normal" isn't good, and above normal for southern New Mexico, especially the southwestern quadrant, where the Signal Fire is still burning.
Here's one part of the picture that doesn't make sense: Because fire fighting costs have exceeded their budgets in eight of the last ten years (last year it was $500 million over), the federal agencies are spending money set aside for forest thinning and other preventive measures to fight the biggest fires. So the fires will get worse.
Legislation introduced in Congress would allow agencies to treat wildfires like natural disasters – which they are – by using funding for such natural disasters as hurricanes and tornadoes when firefighting costs reach 70 percent of the 10-year average.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service is doing some thinning but not nearly enough. The forests are still overgrown, and drought-stressed trees are less able to withstand parasites and fire.
Ruidoso isn't waiting for the federal government. To avoid another Little Bear Fire, locals have cut down sick trees, cleared brush, and made property more defensible, although there are still people who either don't want to part with the pretty trees around their houses or just haven't gotten around to it.
We're not just talking vacation homes here. As cities and towns have expanded, we're hearing the term "urban interface" more often, and it refers to everything from coyotes eating Fifi to homes destroyed in wildfires. In New Mexico, 35,000 homes (value, $5 billion) are at high or very high risk, according to CoreLogic, of Irvine, Calif., which analyzes real estate trends. The company has pointed to Bernalillo and Los Alamos counties but warned that the problem is growing in Lincoln and Otero counties.
Utilities will also have to up their game. The Thompson Ridge Fire north of Jemez Springs in 2013 and the 150,000-acre Las Conchas Fire in 2011 started with downed power lines. Owners of two ranches in Pecos Canyon have sued the Mora-San Miguel Electrical Cooperative for neglecting to remove a dead tree that was blown into power lines and started the Tres Lagunas Fire last summer.
Prevention offers no guarantees. Fire experts explain nervously that they're seeing fire behaviors never seen before. So, like residents of the Gulf Coast and Tornado Alley, we do what we can and hope.