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Some basic facts on wildfire behavior

—Michael Crofoot,

Placitas Firewise Committee

Fire is the result of combustion, a chemical reaction that requires three elements: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Fuel is defined as anything that is capable of burning. In a wildland fire, we think of fuel as brush, grass, logs, and trees. But structures can also serve as fuel if they are in the path of a raging wildfire.

What keeps the combustion process going? Heat must be transferred from a burning fuel to fuels not yet involved. Embers can travel a mile or more before falling to earth, and can cause “spot” fires downwind of the main fire. A high moisture content means fuels will burn poorly or not at all. Grasses, brush, and trees burn more readily when they are dead and dry than when they are green and moist. Evergreen bushes and trees with resinous sap burn more readily than deciduous ones. Our native junipers are sometimes called “green gasoline cans” by some firefighters as in a tree crown fire Juniper tops are known to just burst into flames.

So what determines wildfire behavior in our area? The intensity, speed, direction, and duration of wildland fire activity is defined by existing fuels, topography, and the wind. The duration, intensity, and rate of spread of a wildland fire depend on the size of the fuel the fire is burning. These are examples of fuels sizes—grasses are light fuels; small bushes are medium fuels; and trees are heavy fuels. Continuous fuels are distributed evenly and can allow fire to spread rapidly. Patchy fuels have bare ground or fuel-resistant barriers between them, which may isolate a fire and prevent its spread.

Small trees, tall grasses and shrubs that allow fire to climb into the branches and foliage of large trees are called ladder fuels. Ladder fuels provide a vertical path for fire to spread from the ground to the tree crowns. One of the best ways forward is to remove ladder fuels away from all trees and clear the trees and shrubs at least ten feet away from buildings.

Topography refers to features of the earth’s surface such as slope, aspect, and shape. Topography directly influences the intensity and rate of spread of a wildfire. The topographical feature that most influences wildfire behavior is degree of slope. For instance, fires will burn much quicker up a steep slope. Wildfire dehydrates and preheats fuels uphill from them, causing them to ignite more readily. The steeper the slope, the faster a wildfire will travel. There are dangers downhill from a fire, too. Burning material can roll downhill, igniting fuels below the main fire.

Wildland fires spread more quickly in canyons, ridges, and valleys. Both saddles—depressions between two mountains or hilltops—and chutes—steep V-shaped drainages—cause a chimney effect on fires, which makes them move extremely fast upslope. Wind dries fuel and carries oxygen to a fire. It can carry sparks that cause spot fires. Wind can also dictate the direction and speed a wildfire moves.

There is much evidence that there was a giant wildfire in our area many years ago. It appears that about 1835 a wildfire started in Algodones, burnt up the Las Huertas Creek right through the village of Placitas and then up the north facing foothills of the Sandia Mountain to the very top. Blackened burn marks can still be seen on ancient living junipers in the high foothills on Forest Service land, and thin horizontal black horizontal lines can be seen in various places along the Las Huertas banks.

Considering all of the above, it seems that those homeowners who live south of the village of Placitas off Rt 165, such as up Tunnel Springs Road and Placitas Heights, could be some of the most vulnerable places in our Placitas area to wildfire.

There are several steps we can take to make our wildland-interface homes and property more resistant to wildfires. A basic step is to create defensible space around our homes by reducing the amount of fuels on our properties close to home. Essentially this means thinning out the junipers and trimming off other trees lower branches. Go to the website for more information. And be careful out there.

Sandoval County Fire Chief Maxon honored statewide

James Maxon, interim fire chief for Sandoval County, has been named New Mexico Fire Officer of the Year.

Maxon received the honor on September 10 during opening ceremonies for the 2012 Fire and EMS Expo in Socorro. The Expo is held in conjunction with the State Fire Marshal’s annual Fire School, a week-long training program open to all of the state’s fire and emergency medical personnel. The school is held at the New Mexico Fire Academy on the campus of New Mexico Tech.

In announcing the selection of Officer of the Year, State Fire Marshal John Standefer noted Maxon’s many accomplishments over a twenty-plus-year fire-service career, including his role in co-founding a Fire Science Program at Santa Fe Community College.

Maxon was tabbed as the 2012 Officer of the Year in part because of the manner in which he has stepped into a new leadership role following the tragic, unexpected death of Sandoval County Fire Chief Jon Tibbetts. Maxon was previously the Sandoval County Fire Marshal, a position he continues to fill while also serving as interim fire chief.

“James has managed to keep the Sandoval County Fire Department performing at the same level of excellence during an especially challenging time,” Standefer said.

“I am not only honored, but humbled, to accept this honor,” Maxon said. “It means a lot because it comes from a group of my peers. However, I have to say, I would not be in this position if not for the many mentors I’ve had over the years, including Chief Tibbetts. I also need to give a special thanks to men and women of the Sandoval County Fire Department who have given me great support along the way.

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