AZTEC — Farmington has seen less snow than normal this winter, and despite the storms in early February, San Juan County fire officials say a dry winter will lead to a busy fire season.

From November 2013 to January 2014, it snowed 2.4 inches at the New Mexico State University Agriculture Science Center near Farmington, according to the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. The agricultural science center is on County Road 4063 near Navajo Agricultural Products Industries. From 1981 to 2010, the center recorded an average of 6.8 inches of snowfall during those same three months.

Currently, the 90-day forecast calls for higher temperatures and lower precipitation than normal, said David Vega, the wildland division chief for the San Juan County Fire Department.

San Juan County Fire Department Wildland Division Chief David Vega points to a map on Tuesday at the San Juan County Fire Operations Building in Aztec. The
San Juan County Fire Department Wildland Division Chief David Vega points to a map on Tuesday at the San Juan County Fire Operations Building in Aztec. The map illustrates the areas of San Juan County that are more susceptible to wildfire. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

"It's really concerning to us for what kind of fire season we're going to have in April, May and June," Vega said. "We're definitely under a drought right now. This system helped, but we'd like to see another five or six storms like this dropping some snow."

Farmington has already received 2.6 inches of snow in February. From 1981 to 2010, the city averaged 4 inches of snow in February, according to the weather service.

Higher elevations are receiving closer to normal levels of snowfall so far this winter. The San Juan River Headwaters and the Animas River Basin in southwest Colorado have received 89 and 91 percent of normal precipitation levels, according to a federal program that measures snowpack in western states.

Both the snowpack in Colorado that feeds local rivers and local snowfall affect wildland fire predictions for the spring and summer, Vega said.

Firefighters are encouraging people who live near the rivers — which are the parts of the county most susceptible to wildfires — to take steps to mitigate the risk of a fire damaging their home, Vega said.

Those steps include clearing debris and weeds from a 30-foot perimeter around homes, Vega said.

From left, San Juan County Fire Department Wildland Division Chief David Vega, San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District Weed Coordinator Gary Hathorn
From left, San Juan County Fire Department Wildland Division Chief David Vega, San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District Weed Coordinator Gary Hathorn and San Juan County Fire Department Deputy Chief Craig Daugherty stand Tuesday on land they have cleared to prevent wildfires along the Animas River in Aztec. (Megan Farmer /The Daily Times)

Residents can also get involved to determine where wildland fire mitigation programs will take place in the future.

Fire and land management agencies are updating the San Juan County Wildland Fire Protection Plan. The San Juan County Fire Department is hosting a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Fire Operations Center in Aztec to get community feedback about the plan.

The plan identifies the parts of the county that are most at-risk of seeing wildland fires. Multiple government agencies — including the county and municipalities, the Bureau of Land Management and New Mexico State Forestry — are involved in creating the document.

The agencies involved in the planning process can apply for grants to fund wildland fire mitigation in the at-risk areas, Vega said.

Updates need to be completed every five years for the county to be eligible for grants, he said.

Vega said San Juan County residents can help identify high-risk areas at the meeting Thursday. Public meetings are mandatory as part of updating the document.

Gary Hathorn, the weed coordinator for the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, said the problem areas in San Juan County are along the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers, where invasive Russian olive and salt cedar plants have beaten out native cottonwood trees.

The invasive plants serve as fuel for wildland fires. Hathorn said the plants played a large role in the most destructive fire in San Juan County in recent years. That fire, which was in June 2012, destroyed 12 homes near Blanco, east of Bloomfield.

With grant money, firefighters throughout San Juan County pulverize the non-native vegetation along the river bank and create fire breaks. Those breaks allow firefighters to access and fight fires.

It costs about $1,825 to rid an acre of land of Russian olive and salt cedar, Hathorn said.

Hawthorn said there are about 47,000 acres of land along the county's rivers that are overgrown with those invasive plants and are more vulnerable to wildfires.

The county started to receive fire mitigation grants in 2008. In five years, the county has received about $2 million in grants and treated 2,400 acres for invasive plants, said Craig Daugherty, the San Juan County Fire Department deputy chief, during Tuesday's county commission meeting.

IF YOU GO

What: Public meeting to address San Juan County Wildland Fire Protection Plan

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Fire Operations Center, 209 S. Oliver Drive, Aztec

More info: Call 505-334-1180.

Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and rboetel@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.