Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM)

Many N.M. Fire Depts. Rate Poorly.(Final)

Byline: Thomas J. Cole Journal Investigative Reporter

Rural Residents Pay With Higher Insurance Rates

New Mexico is a tinderbox and ill-equipped to deal with wildfires that threaten communities.

Nearly half of New Mexico's fire departments don't meet or barely meet the minimum insurance industry standard for fire protection, and many of the poorly rated departments are in areas most vulnerable to wildfires.

No other state in the Rocky Mountain West has a higher percentage of departments rated so poorly.

"There is no doubt we have too many rural districts that are not in healthy condition," says state Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna, who oversees the New Mexico Fire Marshal's Office.

Despite that, the Legislature and governor over the past five years have diverted nearly $100 million collected for fire protection to help pay for such general fund budget items as education, prisons and Medicaid.

To make matters worse, the system for allocating money from the fire fund gives the lowest amounts to the departments with the most dire needs.

At the local level, some counties are loath to use the state authority they have to increase their gross receipts taxes to help pay for fire protection.

The problems with underfunded fire departments translate into real money for New Mexicans: Improved fire protection would make New Mexicans and their property safer and save them millions of dollars in homeowner insurance premiums.

No room for amateurs

The state had one wildfire for every 869 residents in 2001, according to data from the Insurance Information Institute. Only three other states Idaho, Montana and North Dakota had a higher per-capita rate.

New Mexico, on average, loses more than 250,000 acres to wildfire each year.

The state lost more than twice that much in both 1999 and 2000 and it has suffered a string of catastrophic fires over the past several years in large part due to drought.

"The kind of fires we're having now aren't the same as the ones we used to have," says Fred Rossbach, resource protection chief for the state Forestry Division. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.