I don’t know what Joe Kenmore’s job description is, but I imagine it’s something like “Make sure people don’t die.”
Joe is good at his job.
In 2012, the Little Bear Fire ripped through Lincoln County, NM. Working alongside his predecessor, Travis Atwell, he humbly states that he strove to “help Travis and the Lincoln County Fire Service and crew keep it in check.” The fire burned more than 40,000 acres and 254 structures, but Joe gets a proud, childish grin on his face when he explains that “the only human cost was a turned ankle.”
Joe is the kind of person you want in charge when a crisis strikes. He has contagious energy, a rancher’s handshake from a previous career as a ‘meat cutter,’ and a handlebar mustache that has a hell of a time hiding his smile. His office is a natural extension of his work. District maps hang on the wall, a horseshoe and railroad pin stand out among stacked papers on his desk, the dispatch radio buzzes constantly in the background.
When we sat down, he apologized for looking tired, saying that he was rescuing stranded hikers all night and only caught a couple of hours of sleep before returning to work that morning. Though I’d only just met him, I thought, “of course you did Joe, because you’re the Emergency Services Director for Lincoln County, NM, you take your work seriously, and you’re a badass.”
Climate change is making his job harder, with a lot of the state expected to see a 400% increase in burned areas. When I ask him about these trends he says, “to me, it’s so erratic”. And the drought has been “just, wow.” “This year,” he says, “they’re calling for an early monsoon, so May and June, but what about July and August?” With fire seasons starting earlier and earlier, the real question is, “what can we do to make it better year to year?”
Joe admits that he’s lucky. He has a “great group of people to work with in [Lincoln] County.” And people trust him. Two of the largest cattle ranchers gave Joe the codes to their gates because they know that if he’s going in their fields he’s “either saving their grass or saving their cows”. It’s remarkable what he’s able to accomplish given the resources at his disposal. More than 85% of firefighters in New Mexico are volunteers, and Joe is only one of two paid staff in his county.
The core of Joe’s job is planning. And climate change is making that harder because the events are so unprecedented. The Little Bear Fire in 2012 – and especially the subsequent flooding - caught the community off-guard. But Joe’s luck held up. He was fortunate that Sam Witted, a fire officer from Arizona who helped fight the 2010 Schultz Fire in that state, happened to be a part of the response team to the Little Bear Fire. Sam handed Joe a copy of the Schultz Flood Plan, and he would need it.
Before the fire, water typically carried 2,000 pounds of sediment per acre-foot of water. After the fire, water carried 194,000 pounds of sediment per acre-foot of water. Joe relied on the Schultz flood plan, plus USGS water monitors, to provide planning and forewarning of flooding events. Ultimately, that allowed Joe to respond fast enough to a car swept from the road by a collapsing hillside to save the lives of the four passengers inside. He was ready. But if he hadn’t met Sam Witted, who knows what would’ve happened?
Joe’s takeaway? Planning takes resources. Resources take the support of the community – and its elected leaders. Joe is ready to implement plans that protect the community, but needs the community and its leaders to be willing to fight climate change. When I asked him what it would take for the community to be on board he said, “we’re all different. It takes a lot of time.” I hope they listen to Joe soon, because he has their wellbeing at heart.
With a warming West, Joe knows there’s a real cost to wildfires. “You can replace trees, you can replace houses, and - as hard as it is to say - you can replace cows, but you can’t replace you and me.”
Written by Peter Sargent
Photography by Virginia Sargent