55, May/June 2004
Fire Ecology II
by Rick DeIaco
"...community-based fire management requires patience, persistence, flexibility, and a commitment to developing community-specific answers to the community's questions of 'Why?' 'What?' 'Where?' 'Who?' and 'How?'"
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The Village of Ruidoso (VoR) is located in Lincoln County, in the south-central part of the State of New Mexico. Nestled at 7,000 feet (2,134 m) elevation in the Sacramento Mountains, Ruidoso is a typical mountain community of the western U.S. Dense stands of Ponderosa pine and other mixed conifers are common both within and around this growing, tourism-based community. The Lincoln National Forest and Mescalero Apache Reservation surround Ruidoso along with other federal and state lands.
Ruidoso has a permanent population of 8,500 with upwards of 50% absentee landowners residing within a surrounding wildland-urban interface (WUI) area encompassing 14,000 acres (5,666 ha). The year-round, permanent population of the VoR is about 8,500; tax records indicate that there is also a substantial additional number of absentee homeowners and landholders -- perhaps as many again as permanent residents -- within the area of the Ruidoso WUI. Along with tourists, these part-year residents tend to spend summers in the area, when the local population swells to 20,000 or more.
Lincoln County overall is the 2nd fastest growing county in New Mexico; census figures indicate its population increased by approximately 60% between 1980 and 2003. Ruidoso is by far the largest population center in Lincoln County, so it is clear that the majority of this growth has occurred within and around Ruidoso. It is precisely this sort of population increase in semi-rural areas that has created the need for community-based forest management programs such as Ruidoso's.
By 1996, a Ruidoso citizens' group (the Lincoln County Forest Health Coalition) was collaborating with the New Mexico Division of Forestry to hold workshops and meetings on forest health and wildfire issues. The citizen's group regularly lobbied the Village Council to develop a forest health and fire management plan. In 1998, the Village began a forest debris pick-up service for residents; this helped encourage people to begin fire management activities on their properties. Despite these preliminary activities, in 2000, New Mexico Forestry assessed Ruidoso as the state community most at risk to catastrophic wildfire; the US Forest Service ranked Ruidoso the second most at-risk community in the nation.
In November 2000, the Ruidoso Wildland Urban Interface Group (RWUIG) was created with the goal of establishing a geographic area designated as the Ruidoso Wildland Urban Interface (RWUI) and developing an overarching wildfire prevention plan for the RWUI. This group meets monthly and is hosted and coordinated by Ruidoso Forestry. Land managing members include: the USDA Forest Service; Mescalero Apache Tribe; Bureau of Land Management (BLM); Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); New Mexico State Land Office; Village of Ruidoso; Lincoln County; Ruidoso Downs; and New Mexico State Forestry Division. Thus, official development of Ruidoso's CFMP followed several years of grassroots efforts to increase community awareness and initiate action on these issues.
In 2002, basic concepts and guidelines developed through the Firewise Communities/USA program were incorporated into the Ruidoso CFMP, both to establish legitimacy for the Plan and to provide a working blueprint to implement it and achieve its goals, namely to:
A Village-commissioned Forest Task Force conducted a baseline and needs assessment of major CFMP components: Fuels Management, Infrastructure Protection and Structural Safeguards. Finally, the Village Council acted on the recommendations of the Forest Task Force. Municipal infrastructure was enhanced and ordinances were enacted requiring fuels management on all properties and site development within Ruidoso town limits. In addition, a Forestry Department was created to administer and implement the CFMP.
From the start, getting the whole community involved, understanding and addressing people's emotional and legal concerns, and articulating and incorporating protection for the more intangible at-risk community values, were keys to successfully developing and implementing the Plan. In short, community-based fire management requires patience, persistence, flexibility, and a commitment to developing community-specific answers to the community's questions of "Why?" "What?" "Where?" "Who?" and "How?"
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At the same time, the ever-increasing populations living in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) -- that is, forested rural areas adjacent to more urbanized areas, towns and cities -- has created a potentially dangerous nexus of high levels of forest fuel, increasing levels of human-constructed fuel and increasing opportunity for human-caused ignition sources. Nor is fire-caused property loss the only risk at issue. An overarching goal for WUI communities is to protect and maintain more intangible community values that are also at risk to wildfire. In Ruidoso, these include public safety, economics, watershed values, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, healthy ecosystems, scenic vistas, historical sites, community peace of mind, and public support of local government. For Ruidoso, maintaining these values is essential to community stability.
Two major challenges to WUI communities are motivating the population and implementing management objectives. Throughout the West, there are common objectives for fuels reduction. First, somehow, some way, trees and/or brush have to be cut. Second, forest debris has to be reduced on-site or transported off-site. Third, if removed, the forest debris has to be utilized or disposed of. Fourth, reentry of low-intensity fire into these treated areas, generally recommended to achieve restoration targets and help maintain ecosystem balance, must be promoted. Prescribed burning, however, is sometimes problematic on private land within WUI communities. Individual communities will address these objectives based on what resources they have available or can develop, and on the extent to which the population can be motivated into action. Motivation of a population requires development of a comprehensive and educational public awareness program; this is one of the areas in which the Firewise Program can provide communities with significant resources.
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The group has reached general consensus in terms of treatment standards for wildland (landscape) and asset protection (defensible space) projects in and around the Ruidoso WUI. A variety of management goals, achieved by different land management agencies implementing different management objectives, creates a mosaic of landscapes within the RWUI. The common thread is maximizing forest health and minimizing risk to catastrophic wildfire.
More generally, suites of "best practices" techniques appropriate for particular management objectives and ecosystems are in existence or being developed; communities should form collaborations with federal and state agencies to seek recommendations for appropriate vegetation treatments. Communities should then develop management objectives based on community values at risk and on an assessment of local capabilities. Firewise Communities/USA offers specific information resources on how to achieve these steps and showcases a number of communities proceeding at their own various paces along the road to community protection. Any of these showcased communities could be a starting point or template for gleaning ideas and developing community forest management and wildfire hazard mitigation plans.
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Next, all RWUIG members forward information on their treatment areas to the geographic information systems (GIS) specialist at the USDA Forest Service, Lincoln National Forest. The resulting product is a multi-jurisdictional map of coordinated projects. Member projects are currently prioritized to focus on the southwest quadrant of the Ruidoso WUI, because during fire season, the predominant winds blow out of the southwest. Thus, although wildfire can start and spread almost anywhere, a crown fire entering the Ruidoso WUI from the southwest and traveling northeast is considered the worst-case scenario. Contiguous treatment areas on public lands in the southwest provide the first line of defense against wildfire entry into the Ruidoso area. The second line of defense comes from individual property owners creating an asset protection zone or defensible space on their property. This may require legal mandates: Village of Ruidoso ordinances enacted in 2002, for example, stipulate that landowners within the village are legally responsible for controlling and reducing flammable vegetation on their property. All of these coordinated treatments within the WUI are creating contiguous blocks of land with improved forest health and reduced wildfire risk, thus providing increasingly significant fire protection for the communities and subdivisions within the WUI boundaries.
The key to successful fire management in a WUI is creating and maintaining a strong but flexible nucleus of land-holding decision-makers as well as collaborating partners. In Ruidoso, the nucleus of what became the RWUIG comprised New Mexico Forestry, the Village of Ruidoso, and the Lincoln National Forest, who started talking about an overarching wildfire prevention plan for the Ruidoso community in November 2000.
As the geographic boundary of the WUI was established, six other land-owning agencies and entities joined in. As time went on, non-land owning collaborators such as contractors, researchers, environmental groups, Congressional staffers, forest product users, Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) councils and local fire departments joined the group and contribute their talents.
The RWUIG also acts as a locus for grant opportunities for fuels management projects and economic development projects that assist local entrepreneurs to develop their businesses. This has been an excellent opportunity for promoting local economic development in Ruidoso: the Village now has a fleet of four "grapple" trucks providing a forest debris pick-up service for residents. The Village, in partnership with recycling contractor Sierra Contracting Inc., is the largest recycler of green forest waste in New Mexico. All of the material removed from private land is recycled into a naturally based compost suitable for landscaping use and silt and erosion control along state highways. The number of companies offering tree thinning and removal services has increased from two in 1998 to more than twenty licensed and doing business in 2004. That translates to more than 50 additional jobs in the private sector. Since 2000, more than one million dollars has been infused into the local economy, through grant opportunities for treatment of private land. Ongoing grant funded projects on municipal lands are adding an additional US$ 800,000.00 to the economy. Many residents are thinning and clearing property without the use of grant money. These dollars are difficult to estimate but add to the economic impact. The Village has added three positions in creating the Forestry Department and four additional positions in the Solid Waste Department (drivers for the "grapple" trucks). This reflects Village actions alone.
The other partners in the RWUIG have implemented projects adding more dollars to the economy. In addition, utilization or end user industries like firewood companies (three), bear carvers and wood novelty enterprises (five) as well as small milling operations (two) have increased capacities. A mini-industry has emerged as a result of fuels reduction activities. Local demand for chainsaws and associated equipment, pruning and raking tools, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), etc. have increased, benefiting local vendors. The local equipment rental company added three wood chippers that are used by residents to reduce forest debris. Contractors and vendors advertise, buy vehicles, pay Gross Receipts Tax and recycle the money again.
Communities developing a community wildfire protection plan should first identify three essential ingredients. First, there needs to be a "sparkplug": an individual who has the time to foster the creation and coordination of a successful WUI working group. It is a full-time job. Generally, federal and state land managers are too busy for the job, but are wonderful resources in terms of technology transfer and treatment prescriptions.
Second, within the community there needs to be a "political champion": a City Councilor or County Commissioner who understands the concepts, is enthusiastic, and is willing to present developed plans to the overall community in a public forum. It's also likely this individual will have valuable insight regarding available local resources. In Ruidoso, for example, one Councilor helped keep the forest management debate alive throughout the years, introduced the idea of developing the community's forest debris pick-up service, and proposed the creation of a Village of Ruidoso Forestry Department as the forestry program evolved and expanded.
The third essential ingredient is for the individuals forming the nucleus to proceed with what is agreed upon while at the same time maintaining flexibility. Things are going to change and plans most likely will have to be adapted. Over-planning of tactical details can delay implementation of core tasks. Beginning with the obvious projects will get the overall program started and will act as an impetus for others to join the process.
In Ruidoso, land managers agreed to two broad categories of treatment, wildland and defensible space. Wildland treatments occur on public land and target both restoration of forest health and mitigation of the danger of crown fires. Defensible space treatments occur on private land within the Village and target both groundfire management and protection of aesthetics (or values at risk). Due to the existence of this base program, Ruidoso was able to secure grant dollars from New Mexico Forestry for defensible space treatments targeting restoration levels of fuels reduction. This financial buy-in from the state government has in turn provided even greater impetus for private landowners to undertake defensible space treatments.
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Implementing a mandatory wildfire hazard abatement program on private land has additional challenges. Promoting the legitimacy of such a program to the general public requires persistent engagement and convincing public awareness through a variety of mediums. The Firewise Communities/USA program and its concepts are a staple in this regard, as stated before. One-on-one consultation with individual property owners or small groups is a very effective tool for raising public awareness. On-site lot assessments with the Village forester explain the CFMP in general, assess any site-specific forest health issues, and show the flexibility of the required fuels management standards (developed using Firewise concepts and research done by Jack Cohen, U.S. Forest Service Research Physical Scientist, Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory). These standards are designed to provide objective measurement of necessary fuel reduction levels, but how the landowner applies the standards varies from lot to lot.
Blending wildfire hazard reduction specifications, on-site forest health issues, and natural landscape opportunities helps promote an "added value concept" to the general public. When landowners understand the "whys" and "hows" of fuels reduction and have a chance to make decisions on how to implement fuels reduction for their site, it is easier to achieve compliance. This approach is time-consuming but it works.
Since 2001, Ruidoso and its RWUIG partners have treated more than 7,000 acres (2,833 ha) on public lands and almost 2,000 acres (809 ha) of private lands. Ruidoso continues to work on its public awareness campaign by means of a web site, TV spots, civic group appearances, videos and written material available at the local public library and the Village Forestry Department. As a result of these efforts, the Village was recognized in 2003 as a Firewise Community by the Firewise Communities/USA program and was the recipient of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Rural Communities Assistance Program's Spirit Award. The Village of Ruidoso hopes that its efforts and the lessons it has learned will be of value to other WUI communities who want develop community-based fire management programs.
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Rick DeIaco is Director of Forestry for the Village of Ruidoso. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Village of Ruidoso
Ruidoso's Community Forest Management Plan
Wildland-Urban Fire Research (U.S. Forest Service)
U.S. Forest Service Collaborative Forest Restoration Program
Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University
Sierra Contracting Inc.
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