Two decades ago, there was little cross-training between firefighters who handle structural blazes and those trained to battle conflagrations in forests, grasslands, mountains and canyons. All that changed in 2000, when the Cerro Grande Fire blistered through Los Alamos, leaving 47,000 acres and hundreds of homes charred in its wake.
“We learned a lot of lessons from that fire,” said Porfirio Chavarria, the city fire department’s wildland urban interface specialist. “We realized there was a big gap between what wildland firefighters and structural firefighters do. After Cerro Grande, collaboration increased a lot between city fire departments, Forest Service, BLM and State Forestry.”
Most city firefighters are classically trained to battle blazes in homes, businesses and other structures. Wildland firefighting is a whole other beast, with a different set of challenges and tools.
A dozen Santa Fe homeowners offered their properties for a refresher class last week in wildland firefighting for about 170 city firefighters.
The Santa Fe Fire Department began trying to get in front of the problem a few years ago. Along with Santa Fe County, it mapped the fire risks of different neighborhoods. Chavarria also put together a team of firefighters with wildland fire training and began convincing residents to fireproof their properties as much as possible. He uses seasonal crews to trim trees, remove brush and reduce fire fuels around the city.
All the city’s firefighters are now cross-trained in both structural and wildland firefighting, Chavarria said.