From the Sierra county commission meeting 3/19/2024

The county approved a contract with the Jornada RC&D Council to provide services that will help meet the Firewise Communities Program in Sierra County. That contract will exchange $35,000 of Title III funds with the council for hazardous fuel reduction, public outreach, and other planning projects. The plan is to first work in the Poverty Creek area and follow up with fuel reduction in Kingston.

Discussion during the commission meeting began with a little history of similar projects in the county. Ryan Williams, the county’s emergency services administrator, and Merry Jo Fahl, executive director of the Jornada RC&D council provided this overview.

We are “bringing projects from the past back to life”, began Williams. Then described how Fahl had organized a previous project in the Poverty Creek area. Fahl said the Sierra Soil and Water was the entity that had previously done hazardous fuel reduction for both the forest and homeowners. However, in that former project, once they had finished in Poverty Creek, they encountered a lack of “landowner interest” in Kingston. Thus Sierra Soil and Water was not able to utilize all the funds available and returned the money. 

Commissioner Hank Hopkins questioned “why start in Poverty Creek?”. A number of reasons were discussed, all of which might be summed up in that Poverty Creek is an easy project. According to Williams, the work done previously is now grown over and needs to be cleared again. Poverty Creek residents are “more cognizant” of the danger of wildfire and need for defensible space added Fahl. Commissioner Paxon followed that by saying “Chief Frank [chief of Poverty Creek volunteer fire department] is a zealot” about clearing defensible space. It is Paxon’s hope that attitude will spread to other Sierra county fire departments. 

After completing work in Poverty Creek, work will commence in Kingston which Williams described as being “more resistant” to clearing brush. They are more likely to say “we like our trees, like them overgrown on our home”, and “after smoke and distress more people buy in” to hazardous fuel reduction. 

There was no discussion as to why Kingston was chosen as a follow up location. According to the Sierra County Wildfire Protection Plan the county has 14 high risk Wildland-Urban Interfaces where hazardous fuel reductions are needed. 

As repeatedly seen throughout the United States, some of the most dangerous places for impact of wildfires are in the WIU. Not only are habitations in these regions often in close proximity to natural combustible materials but also the remote location of many WUI means that fire stations, emergency equipment, and water sources are not nearby. Large insurance companies are no longer covering properties in states like California and Florida and apparently starting to leave New Mexico too. According to Williams, “several businesses and homeowners have lost insurance” in the county including one business in Kingston. He also said that carriers now require homeowners  “show defensible space around homes” and “what they are doing to prevent wildfire damage”.

The SCWPP has been a working document since 2005 and was most recently updated in 2019.  It outlines infrastructure for dealing with wildfires and specific hazards within the county. The SCWPP includes a list of 25 WUI in Sierra county that have been assessed for wildfire hazard. The assessments are based on numerous factors including physical characteristics such as natural and human fuel hazards and terrain; and firefighting capacity including fire department response times and water availability.

Of the county’s 25 WUI, fourteen were determined to be high risk areas in the most recent assessment. Indeed, only one community, Hillsboro, was ranked with a low score. Areas near the Rio Grande; the corridor in Palomas and the bosque in Arrey and Derry; were given the highest rankings for risk. Commissioner Day asked that those areas be considered for hazardous fuel reduction. His concern was the concentration of “salt cedar” (also known as tamarisk, an invasive plant) along these corridors. Salt cedar is not only very flammable but also lowers the water table and secretes salt into the soil. “With the wind, the salt cedar, and houses along the river”, those corridors could be a disaster, worried Day. Williams agreed and said that would also require “some buy in” from the Bureaus of Reclamation and Land Management.

According to the CWPP, the county has received numerous grants to reduce hazardous fuels. Those grants totaling around  $700,000 were used in the Poverty Creek, Kingston and in the Rio Grande bosque areas.

The county plans, once again, to work on fuel reduction in Poverty Creek and Kingston. They have contracted with the Jornada RC&D to implement mitigation projects specifically in those areas. In addition to planning, assessing, and prioritizing hazardous fuel reactions, the scope of work outlined includes public outreach, working with landowners and inspecting projects. The contract is for $35,000 for one year and will automatically renew for two additional years unless terminated.

The Jornada RC&D is one of four active non-profit volunteer councils in New Mexico devoted to resource conservation and development. The Jornada is based in Truth or Consequences but covers the 7 counties in southwest New Mexico. According to the New Mexico Association of RC&D website, these councils are mainly concerned with land conservation, water and land management, and community development.

The county is working with the forest service to locate “slash pits” near Poverty Creek and Kingston, according to Williams. This will provide a place for homeowners to haul branches and other brush. The slash pits will make it easier and less expensive for homeowners, the alternative being to haul brush to transfer stations, miles away from the project area. 

Fahl stated that the projects will require the landowners to put “some skin into the game” meaning that the work will not be provided completely free of charge. No details were given but presumably that would include labor and/or fees. 

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Debora Nicoll
Debora Nicoll

Debora Nicoll, a member of the board of the Sierra County Public-Interest Journalism Project, will cover the Sierra County Commission for the Citizen, as she did for the Sierra County Sun, capitalizing on her past regular attendance at its monthly meetings as a concerned citizen and champion of responsive government. Nicoll was born and raised in the midwest but is a southwesterner by choice, calling Sierra County home since 2010, when she retired from a 22-year career as a research scientist.

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