Firefighter recruitment fund bill advances

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Nearly a year after two federal prescribed burns ignited a historic wildfire northwest of Las Vegas, N.M., devastating communities in more than 530 square miles of Northern New Mexico, the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee has approved a bill that aims to help attract and retain firefighters to fight such blazes. 

House Bill 345 would create a firefighter recruitment fund to provide bonuses to firefighters who join a fire department. 

The bill calls for a $5,000 bonus for each new recruit who stays on the job three years. The bill does not include an appropriation or estimate the cost of providing the bonuses. Instead, it would set up a fund with a goal of drawing future money from federal grants, state income earned from investments and legislative appropriations. Rep. Cynthia Borrego, D-Albuquerque, who co-sponsored the bill, said in an interview the sponsors decided to “get a mechanism in place for the funding first and then come back with funding and rules” during next year’s legislative session. 

Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Albuquerque, another co-sponsor, said there may be other funding sources, such as federal grants, available that lawmakers can access before next year’s legislation to start the fund. 

The fund would be administered by the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Fire officials who attended Tuesday’s hearing lauded the bill, which next goes to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee for consideration. 

They said HB 345 can make a difference when it comes to increasing firefighter numbers in a state prone to wildfires. 

Capt. Martin Salazar of Albuquerque Fire Rescue said in an interview after the hearing a $5,000 incentive could help pull people into a profession that does not pay as well in New Mexico as in other states. 

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the mean annual salary for firefighters nationwide is $55,290.

Bill advances to let firefighters use medical cannabis off-duty

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A bill to make it easier for New Mexico firefighters to use medical marijuana legally got off to a hot start Friday. House Bill 292 would narrow the definition of “safety-sensitive position” in the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, which governs the state’s medical cannabis program. As proposed, the definition would only include employees who are required to carry a firearm or operate a vehicle with a commercial driver’s license and “whose performance under the influence of drugs or alcohol would constitute an immediate or direct threat of injury or death to the person or another.” State law currently defines a “safety-sensitive position” ineligible for the medical cannabis program more broadly, barring firefighters from using medical cannabis without their employer’s permission. Miguel Tittmann, who represents about 900 firefighters in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County as president of Local 244 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the House Health and Human Services Committee the proposal “is not a firefighter bill.”

New Mexico’s fire season roars to an early start

New Mexico’s wildfire season typically begins in May or June. But it’s only March, and New Mexicans are already dealing with wildfires. Earlier this month, a fire ignited on Kirtland Air Force Base, burning about 200 acres. The fire’s cause is still under investigation, according to base officials. But a lack of coordination between the base and local fire departments has worried some East Mountain residents.

Beyond the concepts of ‘land management’ are real people, sacrifice

On the edge of the Valle Grande in northern New Mexico stands a grove of towering ponderosa pines. The trees, many of them between 250 and 400 years old, comprise what’s called the History Grove, and they offer a snapshot into what the forests of the Jemez Mountains looked like centuries ago—before widespread grazing in the late 19th century and decades of fire suppression by the federal government. During a recent trip there, I was reminded of what goes into protecting and maintaining our forests and landscapes. Land management, as it’s called, is made of up of meetings and programs, line-item budgets and public comment periods. And sometimes, expensive lawsuits and bitter battles.