The Santa Fe Fire Department’s Wildland Division is expected to hire 15 temporary employees as it braces for what many predict will be an extraordinarily dangerous wildfire season.
The seasonal positions are included in the fire budget, which was approved Thursday by the city’s Finance Committee. The City Council is set to vote on the full city budget this week.
“I think that we’re potentially looking at a bad season,” Wildland Fire Superintendent Nathan Miller said. “The biggest concern is just the threat of fire to the city of Santa Fe. All the way around us, we have mountain ranges. I think unfortunately if the fire sparked at the perfect time — I’ll call it the perfect storm — it could have a devastating effect to the city of Santa Fe.”
Fire officials are expecting the wildfire season to be worse than in recent years because the state is experiencing severe drought conditions. The biggest challenge, they say, would be having to fight several large fires at the same time.
The entire department responds to wildfires, but Miller said members of the Wildland Division undergo more extensive training in fighting such fires. In addition to responding to brush fires, wildland crews also help with trail rescue missions for lost or injured hikers.
“It’s more tools in the toolbox coming from the Wildland Division to be able to assist that specialty because we all know a wildland fire from a structure fire can be completely different,” Miller said.
For the upcoming fiscal year, the department asked for $500,000 to hire 15 employees from April to October. While it normally adds at least 20 firefighters over the summer, the team should be just as effective, Miller said.
Previously funded by grants, the positions are now expected to receive funding from the city, Assistant Fire Chief Brian Moya said.
“We are just trying to clean up the budget where with the money’s tied exactly to the people that need it,” he said. “By moving that money around, I’m trying to clean it up and make it more transparent for everybody to see.”
Revenue can also be generated through the team responding to fires outside city limits, in other counties and even in other states as part of New Mexico’s Resource Mobilization Plan. Almost “every dollar spent by the city” is reimbursed by the state, Miller said. If crews respond to a neighboring state, they are reimbursed by officials in that jurisdiction.
The division also does Wildland Urban Interface home assessments, along with green waste removal, Assistant Fire Chief Phil Martinez said.
“They’ll go in and schedule appointments with residents, they’ll clean up and they’ll give them advice on how to prepare the area for wildfire season,” he said.
Since 2014, the fire department has conducted 3,000 home assessments. Of those assessments, fire officials have executed 100 agreements, meaning the team has gone to the property and made changes deemed necessary in the assessment, averaging between 10 and 15 completed agreements a year.
”The reason that some people have chosen not to have the work completed is because they thought that the recommendations we make from the assessment is to remove too many trees from their properties,” Miller said.
Still, he encouraged the public to reach out to the department, emphasizing the importance of preventive measures during high-risk fire seasons.
When they’re not fighting fires, crews train to better prepare for the season.
During a budget hearing last week, Fire Chief Paul Babcock said 80 percent of calls the department receives are for emergency medical services rather than a fire. Fire officials hope to better prepare their teams for these calls by having them undergo crisis intervention, deescalation, behavioral and mental health, and sensitivity training.
And Moya said seven employees have gone through three weeks of training with the Public Safety Psychology Group in Albuquerque to learn how to help manage mental health issues that may result from the nature of the job.
While the fire department is preparing for the wildfire season, Miller placed a higher importance on the need for community preparedness.
”Just abide by the rules,” he said. “I call it be fire smart. If there’s no burning allowed, abide by it. If you see something, call right away. The early notification will help us get out, get it contained and get control of that situation [in] a quicker manner.”