Wildfire Prevention and Watershed Health Talk April 11.

Andrew Egan 

Las Vegas, N.M.  — A free public talk on reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and watershed health will be at Highlands University April 11 at 12 p.m. in Burris Hall, Room 129, 903 National Ave.

Andrew Egan, New Mexico Forestry and Watershed Restoration Institute director, will also talk about examples of cross-disciplinary research related to forest harvesting

The university’s chapter of Sigma Xi, a scientific research society, is sponsoring the talk. Light refreshments will be served.

Last year was the worst wildfire season in New Mexico history, and the 2012 wildfire season has already begun, adding urgency to mitigation efforts. Egan said with warmer and drier climate changes and forest fuel build up, predictions call for more frequent and severe wildfires in the state.

“There are lessons we can learn from the 2011 catastrophic wildfire season in New Mexico when nearly one million acres burned,” said Egan, who earned his Ph.D. in forestry from Penn State University and is a Senior Fulbright Scholar. “In Northern New Mexico, we had huge fires like the Las Conchas Fire near Los Alamos and the Track Fire near Raton. Closer to home, smaller fires burned in the Gallinas Canyon and near the Sipapu Ski Area.”

Egan said if there was a catastrophic fire in the Gallinas Canyon, post-fire monsoon flooding could trigger massive soil erosion that would overwhelm the water filtration system in Las Vegas. Flooding after the Los Conchas Fire caused severe soil erosion damage.

Egan joined the institute in August 2010 and in 2011 took a lead role in forming the Gallinas Partnership, an alliance of the City of Las Vegas, San Miguel County, state and federal forest service, private landowners, and other stakeholders.

The Gallinas Partnership is working to improve the health and safety of the Gallinas watershed through wildfire mitigation that helps prevent catastrophic wildfire and improves watershed health.

“The partnership evolved from a grassroots effort and is going strong,” Egan said. “There are four working groups: economic development, education/outreach, on-the-ground practices, and preparation/emergency response.

“Dennis English with the San Miguel County Office of Emergency Management has done a great job with the preparation/emergency response plan, and we’re developing a plan for hazardous fuel reduction. We’ve made real progress with outreach and education, and are building on that,” Egan said.

The New Mexico Forestry and Watershed Institute is located at New Mexico Highlands University and works to develop safer and healthier forests and protect watersheds.

Egan said that an important part of the institute’s overall mission is to provide technical assistance to public agencies and private landowners through its experts, Joe Zebrowski, Patti Dappen and Katie Withall.

Economic development is another major initiative of the institute.

“The institute doesn’t just work to help prevent catastrophic wildfires,” Egan said. “We also train people to develop jobs based on hazardous fuel reduction in the forest. They learn how to choose trees to harvest, how to safely use chainsaws, how to monitor the restoration, and how to be reforestation leaders in their communities.”

The institute recently developed and published a new model that systematically helps assess job creation related to forest restoration, including thinning — a practice that helps prevent wildfires while improving forest health.