SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico plans to hire 40 military veterans to serve as firefighters during the upcoming wildfire season as part of a pilot program announced Monday by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.
Veterans will be trained and assigned to four “hand crews” to fight wildfires across the state. State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said the military veterans will be in addition to about 250 seasonal firefighters the state typically hires.
“We are not cutting any jobs to make way for these,” Ware said. Starting pay is $17.40 an hour, and some firefighting training starts next week.
New Mexico is bracing for a possibly devastating fire season because of lingering drought conditions. The state’s wildfire season usually runs from May to July, though the crews of military veterans could be assigned to help fight fires outside of New Mexico after the wildfire season ends in the state.
Ware said the state will evaluate the pilot program for military veterans after the fire season to determine whether it should be made permanent and expanded.
State prison inmates have been trained to help the State Forestry Division in fighting wildfires since 1996.
The governor announced the program for military veterans at a news conference in Albuquerque where she urged New Mexicans and visitors to the state to be vigilant about the threat of wildfires.
“Conditions are in place for another potentially difficult fire season and I urge all New Mexicans to take the responsibility we all have to prevent wildfires very seriously,” Martinez said in a statement.
The Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso last year became the most destructive in the state’s recorded history. It destroyed more than 250 buildings and caused more than $22 million in damages.
There have been 59 wildfires on state and privately owned land since January, burning about 739 acres. That’s down from 68 fires that burned 2,104 acres at the same time last year.