Fire officials say San Juan County likely in for another active fire season

Warm temperatures, dry fuels expected to combine soon with high winds

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • San Juan County remains locked in a drought this spring as it has been for most of the last two years.
  • Fire officials encourage those using a burn permit to educate themselves about conditions and take precautions before they begin burning.
  • Both San Juan County Fire & Rescue and the Farmington Fire Department have received new firefighting equipment this spring.

FARMINGTON — Some well-timed, late-winter storms across San Juan County have brought some much-needed moisture to the area and lessened the immediate danger of large, wildland fires cropping up.

But that doesn’t mean the chances of a small blaze getting out of control have dried up, local fire officials say.

With temperatures climbing and winds picking up as the calendar turns to late March, San Juan County and the rest of New Mexico are entering a period that traditionally has meant an increase in wildland fire activity. Officials say the recent snowstorms that have rolled through the Southwest have helped keep the start of fire season at bay for a little while longer, but they don't expect that to last.

"We did have some storms that were spaced out enough so that has kept the frequency of fires low," said David Vega, deputy chief of operations for San Juan County Fire & Rescue. "But in terms of outlook, the next three months — usually April, May and June — those are the months when we are looking at really, really, really above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation. So we could be looking at a higher number of fires."

The coming of spring ushers in an increased chance of wildfires, local fire officials say, such as this 89-acre blaze that burned near Shiprock in April 2021.

Vega is largely dismissive of the term "fire season," arguing that it no longer applies in an era in which large wildland fires can occur in many parts of the country during any month of the year.

"The term fire season is really a misnomer, especially here in the Southwest, in the high desert and in San Juan County," he said. "We have a year-round potential for wildland fires … "

Jay Walter, the wildland fire chief for the Farmington Fire Department, said the relative calm firefighters are enjoying in the area now could come to an end soon enough.

"Fuels have already started drying out as there's been a lack of precipitation," he said. "In a short time, we'll add in higher temperatures and add in wind, and then you'll start to see increased (fire) activity."

Walter said fire officials are assessing the moisture content of vegetation on a weekly basis to determine how dry it has become, and he expects those assessments to yield some sobering information quickly.

"We'll see a green up of vegetation over the next few weeks, but as temperatures come up, that won't last," he said. "When those fuels dry out, that will make them more and more receptive to wildfire hazard."

A low moisture content in the soil and vegetation isn't the only concern of firefighters. Both Vega and Walter acknowledged that high winds — a regular feature of springtime in the Four Corners — can be an even bigger factor in seeing a small blaze turn into a significant one.

"That is something we are always concerned about," Walter said. "Winds can contribute drastically to wildfire spread."

David Vega

Vega said the combination of high winds and dried-out vegetation can create a recipe for disaster.

"That's why we put a great deal of emphasis on safety when people do get burn permits," he said, explaining that many farmers in San Juan County also burn stubble off their fields this time of year or torch vegetation in their irrigation ditches.

Those who obtain a permit are required to call San Juan County Fire & Rescue before they begin a burn, he said, explaining that such activity is off-limits on days when high winds are forecast. Conditions became so bad at one point last summer that county officials were forced to suspend burn permits for several weeks, and Vega said that may become necessary again this year.

Walter said it looks like conditions are ripe again this year for high winds throughout the spring.

"We've had a few good windstorms lately, very impressive, actually," he said.

The clash between warm, dry air coming up from the South and cold air coming down from the mountains leads to the atmospheric conditions that generate strong winds in the Southwest in the spring, he said.

"That's something we factor in as part of the risk assessment we're doing," he said. "So if people are thinking about burning, we recommend they seek out that information before they burn. A lot of people have material they need to burn — we totally understand that. We just want them to seek out the information first and make sure it's good day to do it."

As it has been for most of the last two years, the entirety of San Juan County is in some form of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with most of the county, including Farmington, falling in the extreme drought category, the second-worst classification.

A wildfire burns near Mesa Farm Road in Shiprock on May 2, 2021.

Vega said San Juan County's long-running drought doesn't mean there isn't plenty of dead or dying vegetation around to serve as fuel for any fire that gets out control.

"If you drive around San Juan County, we actually do have a decent grass crop," he said, explaining that a lack of heavy snow throughout most of the winter meant that native grasses were not weighed down and have been allowed to spread.

He also said he has noticed that many of the pinon and juniper trees he sees are showing brown needles or limbs, a sign that they are being stressed by the drought.

"There's not enough moisture in the soil to keep them healthy," Vega said.

He cited a measurement called the energy release component that fire officials use to gauge how susceptible vegetation is to fire.

"The ERCs are already higher than they should be," he said. "In other words, our fuels are extremely dry."

Vega was pleased to note that county firefighters are better equipped to handle wildland blazes this spring than they have been in the past because of the addition of new so-called "brush trucks," which are relatively light vehicles that are used to reach and battle wildland fires.

More:With capital outlay bill signed, San Juan County and Navajo Nation projects get funding

"They're a definite aid to us in our suppression efforts," he said.

The Farmington Fire Department has received some new equipment in the form of a new self-contained breathing apparatus which is used to protect firefighters from oxygen deficiency, dust, gases and vapors. The department also received a new ladder truck last week, bringing its total capital outlay allocation from the Legislature to $2.4 million.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.