Commission OKs burn ban in unincorporated county

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Despite the small amounts of rain in the county over the weekend, a ban on open burning in the unincorporated areas of Valencia County has been issued.

The Valencia County Commission approved an emergency ordinance last Wednesday, declaring an emergency and prohibiting all open and controlled burning in the county.

Valencia County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales recommended the approval of the ordinance after New Mexico State Forestry announced restrictions on fireworks, smoking campfires and open fires across the state in all non-municipal, non-federal and non-tribal lands in New Mexico.

"We're trying to be proactive and make sure we don't have a catastrophic event happen in the county," Gonzales said. "We've had decreased amount of rainfall and the amount of water provided to the farmers from the conservancy district."

According to state forestry, the Middle Rio Grande Valley has been categorized as having exceptional drought conditions, which has the potential for catastrophic wildfires.

The ban prohibits all outdoor burning, including the following types of burning:

• Campfires;

• Open fires;

• Open burning of vegetation or rubbish;

• Any other smoke-producing substance and material that creates a fire safety hazard;

• Trash barrel burning; and

• Agricultural burning

Anyone found guilty of violating the open-burn ban ordinance can face up to a $300 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

The ordinance will be in effect until rescinded by Gonzales, who will determine when favorable conditions exist.

Gonzales said the ban on open burning might cause some heartache, especially local farmers who might need to do some agricultural burning, but the fire chief said the conditions in the Middle Rio Grande Valley are extreme.

"We've been categorized as being in an exceptional drought," Gonzales said. "It's more than extreme."

Gonzales said the bosque has the highest potential for wildland fires during this time, but he wants to make sure residents know that the best way to protect their property is to have a 30-foot defensible space around their homes.

All residents should remove weeds and brush around their homes and ensure yard areas be regularly maintained to prevent future weed encroachment.

Rob Barr, the wildland coordinator for the county, said firefighters also are concerned about unimproved fields.

"We had a fire the other day, and there was very little wind, but with all the grass, with a few gusts it really took off," Barr said. "That's what we're concerned about; all it took was a gust of wind."

Barr reported there have been several agricultural burns that have escaped, even as far back as January when the temperatures were cool, but the conditions were still dry.

"We haven't had very many serious wind-driven fires, thank goodness," he said. "But with the extreme dry conditions, it's very dangerous."

Gonzales said with the above-normal chances of having a significant fire in the area, he hopes residents will be careful and not burn.

"We're sensitive to the needs of the farmers, but at this time, any small fire can get out of control," he said. "This ban is to protect them, their properties and their neighbors' property."

Gonzales met with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District Wednesday to discuss the possibility of closing the bosque for recreational use.

The decision will be made by the district's board of directors.

In the meantime, the fire chief said he has the authority to rescind the burn ban, which won't be anytime soon unless conditions in the valley "considerably improves."


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.