Alcalde/Velarde Firewise founder Judith Chaddick addresses the Rio Arriba County Commission in Española on Sept. 28. Chaddick accepted a community service award on behalf of her organization. 

The Alcalde/Velarde Firewise Community was awarded a community service award by the Rio Arriba County Commission during its Sept. 28 meeting. 

Firewise is a national program that teaches people how to respond to wildfires in their communities. 

Alcalde/Velarde Firewise Founder Judith Chaddick was at the Sept. 28 meeting to accept the recognition. 

“I just feel really honored and appreciated,” Chaddick said. “I think ‘appreciated’ is the main word there. It’s really a challenge to communicate with the large community. We’re 1,700 households spread out, between Alcalde and the end of Velarde. It feels good that the County sees what we’re doing and we appreciate it.”

After receiving the award, Chaddick said she wanted to recognize North Central Solid Waste Authority General Manager Peter Fuller. 

“We’ve been working with him, and he’s gone out of his way to work with us,” Chaddick said.

The Authority has been providing Alcalde/Velarde Firewise with the roll-off dumpster it’s been using during its drop-off events, Chaddick said.

The next event is Oct. 21 and it’s restricted to the communities between Okhay Owingeh and the north end of Velarde, where residents will be able to take a free tarp-covered load of green and brown waste, limited to waste under a 4-inch diameter or 5 feet in length, as well as bags of leaves and other waste.

Workers at the October event will also be accepting yard waste, old appliances furniture, hot water heaters, paint and building materials. Acids, batteries, dead animals, dirt, rocks, concrete roofing shingles and refrigerators (with Freon) will not be accepted. 

Chaddick said they decided to open up the collection after finding out the condition of the Authority’s burner. 

“We discovered this in the spring when we brought our green and brown waste, and it all went into the same main stream of trash,” Chaddick said. “The burner at Ohkay Owingeh is so compromised that only the residents of Ohkay Owingeh can use it.”

Chaddick said that clearing out residential overgrowth was one of the goals of Firewise.

“Mostly because where we live in a riparian ecosystem, the growth of both the underbrush and what we might call weeds and the larger bushes and weeds (Siberian Elm and Russian Olive) are so prolific they have clogged up the bosque,” Chaddick said. “Its really hard to manage, especially the Siberian elm because it never really dies. It’s a very unique area compared to evergreen forests. 

Chaddick said the Siberian elm forests “go up like an inferno,” whereas a wildlife in the crown of a bosque wouldn’t stop.

“Both are pretty deadly,” Chaddick said. “We’ve been very, very blessed with the bosque fires. We haven’t lost any homes. We’ve been very blessed, but we can’t count on that.”

District Forester Mary Stuever said she’s worked with Alcalde/Velarde Firewise, as well the other two Firewise communities in the County that connect with national Firewise programs.

“When we look at the communities along our river systems, one of the challenges we have is the impact of non-native shrubs in our bosque ecosystem,” Stuever said. “The presence of these shrubs has changed how fires act.”

Plants like the Russian olive, Stuever said, were introduced in the early nineteen teens for flood and erosion management, but came with a host of unexpected consequences.

“Prior to intensive human occupation in this area, we don’t think fire was major disturbance issue,” Stuever said. “As we’ve come in and regulated these rivers and these non-native shrubs have moved in, we’re seeing that fire has become the number one disturbance factor.”

The shift in types of plants along the bosque have also caused problems for migratory songbird nesting and for insects in the areas but clearing out the bosque of invasive species would require focusing resources, Stuever said.

“What we are seeing a lot of in the San Juan Basin, where we’ve done a lot of work when we go in and remove the Russian olive, etc., our fire departments are quite noticeably more effective at protecting homes from fires,” Stuever said “It’s really important to understand when we don’t take action, when we just kind of let this invasion of Russian olive continue unchecked.”

Stuever said that a lot of solutions for property owners to protect their homes were common sense.

“I think one of the concepts that we’re all promoting is the idea when we chose to live in ecosystems that tend to burn we need to learn how to live a lifestyle that is fire adapted,” Stuever said. “If you’re living in the bosque, and in an area that is likely to have fire, each decision that you make needs to be informed by when the fire comes to that property. The reality is it’s not a question of whether your property will burn but when will your property burn.”

The County doesn’t provide residents with assistance to help clear their property of brush, Chaddick said.

“It’s one thing to clear out the five feet around your house or even 30 feet, but even more than that, it’s really rough,” Chaddick said.

The County helped Firewise apply for a Wildlands Urban Interface grant, which was a 50-50 matching grant, where the County would pay 50 percent of clearance work and the federal government through the forestry department would pay the other half, but after several years of not receiving the grant, the County had to pull out of the program.

“The money from the County is gone and we have not been able to pay for this work and everybody’s on their own,” Chaddick said. “People really stepped up and put in a lot of work, but there’s still plenty of us who don’t have the money to do the major work.”

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