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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Wildfires trigger agricultural emergency response plans statewide

As wildfires break out across New Mexico, counties and agricultural agencies have opened their emergency response plans and are organizing to help keep livestock, horses and other animals out of harm's way.

Cattle graze in Valles Caldera National Preserve as the Las Conchas Fire skirts the preserve. Agricultural agencies and counties are working together to help keep livestock, horses and other animals out of harm's way as wildfires break out across New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Rourke McDermott with the Valles Caldera Trust.)

"We've planned and practiced responding to emergencies for the past five years, and it's being put into practice now," said Billy Dictson, co-director of the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center office of biosecurity that is housed at New Mexico State University. "It's awesome to watch the various people and agencies working smoothly together to help protect our citizens' livelihood."

In some counties, horse response groups are very active in moving horses from affected areas.

When the Wallow fire broke out in Eastern Arizona and threatened Catron County, New Mexico's agriculture community began to respond with escape routes, transportation, feed and water.

As the Las Conchas Fire broke out June 27 near the Valles Caldera National Preserve, representatives of NMSU Cooperative Extension Service, New Mexico Department of Agriculture, New Mexico Livestock Board, New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau and various cattle producers organized to protect and respond to livestock that might be in the path of the fire.

A couple of days later, fires were roaring in Otero, Lincoln and Eddy counties. Again, the agricultural group networked and began helping livestock producers in the midst of multiple fires.

"In New Mexico, the Livestock Board is legislatively charged with the responsibility to work with other responders to mitigate the damage," Dictson said. "However, as multiple fires erupted and personnel get stretched, response becomes more and more a local issue and cooperation becomes more important."

New Mexico is very prepared for an agricultural emergency, thanks to the commitment of the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center to work with counties on federally mandated agricultural emergency plans.

During the fire in Colfax County, Bill Sauble, Colfax County Commissioner, said, "We got our agricultural emergency plan out and went to work."

"In association with the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security, NMDA, Cooperative Extension and the Livestock Board, we have worked with county emergency management personnel to be ready," Dictson said. "One of our goals was to have various agencies' people know each other, so they can access each other quickly during the emergency."

As fires break out around New Mexico, a daily conference call is held between the SWBFSDC, NMDA, county Extension agents, the New Mexico Livestock Board, and New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau and others.

They review what's happening at the various fires in regard to livestock being in harm's way and then connect people to resolve the issues.

"We watched other states during natural disasters, such as Texas during Hurricane Rita and their recent fires, and realized that we had to be ready to move quickly in response to events such as the fires that are breaking out around our state," Dictson said. "We think New Mexico is a model in terms of this type of response, thanks to all of the people who make themselves available to help."

At the recent Cattle and Wool Growers summer meeting, ranchers were asking how they could take Incident Command System training so they could be better prepared to assist during natural disasters. That training will be offered soon by the SWBFSDC.

Jeff Witte, NMDA director, and Dictson credit the agricultural community's partnership with the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the success of New Mexico's preparedness.