Upfront efforts key to reducing wildfire risks

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so the old saying goes. Of course, folk wisdom doesn't always hold up when examined rigorously.

When it comes to reducing damage from wildfires, however, it appears that prevention really does matter.

A report — "Lessons Learned from Waldo Canyon" — prepared after the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire last year in Colorado Springs, Colo., shows just how essential efforts to reduce wildfire risks can be. In just one Colorado Springs subdivision, for example, $300,000 spent to reduce risks helped the neighborhood avoid some $77 million in losses.

With New Mexico facing another potentially deadly wildfire year — we remain in drought with plenty of fuels to burn — this report could help us prepare our strategy for reducing fire risks.

Prevention must be a team effort, with both state and local governments and private landowners combining efforts.

The Waldo Canyon Report shows that some 80 percent of homes threatened by the fire were saved. Credit goes in part to homeowners who took the fire risk seriously and did their part to prepare.

As it was, the June 2012 fire burned 18,247 acres and 346 homes, with two people dying in the blaze. What helped the city escape worse damage were efforts in its Wildland-Urban Interface area.

A public education campaign in neighborhoods encouraged people to remove debris, thin trees and fireproof their houses. The idea, of course, was to deprive any potential fire of fuel.

Fire, when it comes, doesn't just affect the homes up against the forest. Flames can jump and spread to other parts of town. What's more, a fire can affect everyone's access to water.

The state's wildfire season generally runs from May to July, and with drought still gripping the area, officials expect a dangerous summer ahead.

We can't control lightning strikes or careless campers — fires have a way of igniting despite people's best efforts.

We can, however, do more to ensure our homes are protected. Cut and trim dead trees, and don't forget that live trees too close to property can be a danger. Build fire breaks so that flames can't spread easily. Move woodpiles away from structures and flammable items such as propane tanks. Cut weeds and mow grass.

Take responsibility, in other words, for personal property. Governments, if individuals aren't doing their part, should step in. If necessary, bill property owners for fire prevention efforts, especially absentee owners who might be unaware of the danger.

With billions of public dollars being spent to suppress wildfires, it only makes sense that individuals step up their efforts.

The Waldo Canyon report shows us that with effort upfront, those of us out West can do more to protect both property and people.

Gov. Susana Martinez has declared March 31-April 6 Wildfire Awareness Week in New Mexico. What better way to increase awareness than for people to go outside, examine their property critically and make themselves — and their neighbors — safer.

— The Santa Fe New Mexican

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