A row of mailboxes off Riata Road near Tularosa.

Public safety 911 enhancements discussed

App-based businesses such as food delivery and ride-share companies use GPS to find their customers. But the New Mexico 911 Program does not have that technology to do that yet. The Next Generation 911 is expected to bring the current analog 911 system into the 21st century. “The New Mexico 911 Program works to provide a best-in-class 911 system that facilitates efficient and reliable public safety response to best serve the communities of New Mexico,” Stephen A. Weinkauf, bureau chief of the E-911 Bureau’s Local Government Division, Department of Finance and Administration, said at a Rural Economic Opportunities Task Force meeting Nov. 21. 

Enacted in March 2022, the New Mexico 911 Program was established by the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004, or the Ensuring Needed Help Arrives Near Callers Employing 911 Act of 2004, which sought to upgrade the nation’s 911 system in the post-9/11 years.

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FEMA seeks public comment on Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeking public comment on the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act interim final rule. The public comment period runs until January 13, 2023. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act provides compensation for victims of the fire that the U.S. Forest Service began as a prescribed burn in the Sante Fe National Forest in San Miguel County. This compensation may cover eligible losses, including personal injury, property loss,  business loss or financial loss. “FEMA’s Interim Final Rule guides the claims process and describes necessary documentation, evaluation criteria and compensation available for those impacted by the fire and subsequent flooding,” A FEMA news release states.

LIDAR data used to prioritize projects in Hermits Peak burn scar

As the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire smoldered and monsoon season rolled in, response turned from fighting the flames to trying to protect lives and property from flooding and runoff around the burn scar. Because of the size of the fire and the risks to people—post-burn flooding killed four people—methods like walking or driving the landscape to evaluate the damage weren’t feasible. “There was a big push on doing this faster than traditional methods and with more effectiveness,” Katherine Kraft, director of product strategy for Teren, said. Teren is a climate resilience analytics company that has been doing work to gather data about the burn scar. Its methods involve flights over the burn scar to gather LIDAR data that could then be used to prioritize areas for stabilization activities.

The age of consequence: Wildfires in New Mexico

At 4:15 p.m. on April 6, a team of wildland firefighters stood on alert near a rocky ridge just northwest of Las Vegas. The spot in the valley was breathtaking, full of ponderosa pine and jagged stone outcroppings. Hermit’s Peak — a dramatic craggy mountain crest — loomed overhead. 

The crew was standing guard over a prescribed fire when suddenly an order came over the radio, directing them to abandon their post and head downslope where embers had jumped outside the containment lines. In the minutes that followed, the winds shifted, the flames spread and all the fire engines ran out of water. At 4:50 p.m., U.S. Forest Service officials declared that the prescribed burn had become a wildfire.

Monsoon storms bring flooding, surges in rivers

As Joe Kenmore, the Lincoln County emergency services director, saw the rain coming down around the McBride Fire burn scar last weekend, he knew what he had to do: keep people safe and protect property. Lincoln County is no stranger to the impacts of monsoon rains on burn scars. About a decade ago, another fire swept through the area. 

The McBride Fire burned in the same canyon and the burn scar is now threatening the waters and lands in the same place. Kenmore described it as “a continual fight to recover the land.”

A weekend storm starting Aug. 19 led to flooding around the burn scar area.

Back to school in New Mexico’s fire zone

TIERRA MONTE — Ever since the start of the monsoon season, a torrent of boulders and debris has tumbled down the mountainside toward the Encinias family home, only months after the land was laid bare by fire. On April 22, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze consumed almost everything around them, including their five-bedroom house, private well and most all worldly possessions. Since then, the family of five, their four dogs and eight cats have lived in a 38-foot RV. The summer has been unspeakable for Daniel and Lori Ann Encinias’ three youngest daughters, who, in the coming days, are slated to return to school: Amanda, 18, at Luna Community College, and Justina, 16, and Jaylene, 15, at Robertson High School. For them and countless others, catastrophe overshadows their return to learning.

‘Is your land for sale?’ Alarming offers to buy property in the burn zone

April Hoogerhuies got the phone call in the middle of packing up her home in Las Vegas, frantically trying to get things ready in case the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon inferno forced her to evacuate.  

“Is your land for sale?” the caller inquired. It was two weeks after the wildfire started, and the blaze was imperiling people’s lives — evacuation orders were in the offing for nearly every village from Mora to Las Vegas. Hoogerhuies could already see flames engulfing the nearby hills. “This isn’t the time or place for this,” she replied.  

The caller rattled off a company name too quickly to note, but it was clear she wanted to buy a plot of undeveloped property that Hoogerhuies and her husband Daniel own in Manuelitas, just east of Hermits Peak. The couple maintains a greenhouse on the land, where they plant crops like pumpkins, radishes and tomatoes.

Biden amends disaster declaration for wildfire, increasing time for NM to receive federal assistance

President Joe Biden authorized an increase in federal funds available to New Mexico in light of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which was sparked by U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns. The additional funding available through the disaster declaration that was amended on Monday will help with debris removal and emergency protective measures that the state of New Mexico has taken. 

When the original declaration was issued on May 4, it set the federal government’s share at 75 percent of total eligible costs for measures taken during the first 90 days of the incident period. That was amended on June 11 to increase the federal share to 100 percent of total eligible costs. Monday’s amendment changes the time limit. It now states that eligible expenses that occur within 90 days of the original declaration can receive federal funds, instead of the first 90 days of the incident period.

Amid Biden’s visit, push continues to get additional help for fire victims

Rock Ulibarri says he tries to be self-sufficient, including growing food and ranching at his northern New Mexico home. But the merged Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires that forced evacuations in several counties have made this hard for his family as they’ve lost food and face increased costs. 

As the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire continues to char land in northern New Mexico, lawmakers and people impacted by the blaze say it is important that the federal government takes responsibility for starting the fire and provides compensation and assistance to those impacted. As of Monday morning, the fire had burned more than 320,000 acres and was 70 percent contained. It is the largest of several fires currently burning in New Mexico and is also the largest fire in the state’s recorded history. The second largest fire in state history, the Black Fire, is also still burning and has engulfed more than 311,000 acres.

Anger toward the Forest Service has been smoldering for a century. Raging wildfires brought it roaring to life.

TIERRA MONTE — The air smells of ash and the landscape is leached of color. Spots of green punctuate the valley floor in places. But along the ridges, the powdery residue of charred trees has fallen like snow, accumulating up to 4 inches deep. These are the slices of forest where the fire burned the hottest, scorching ponderosa pines from crown to root. Once titans, they are now matchsticks. 

Pola Lopez gestures in their direction, southward toward Hermits Peak.