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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After an update about the Black Fire in southern New Mexico and efforts to fight it, a woman attending a community meeting in Truth or Consequences on Thursday asked for information about what it is like to be evacuated, telling the officials that she’d never faced an evacuation before.
Thousands of New Mexicans have been forced to leave their homes as wildfires char hundreds of thousands of acres across the state. Hundreds of structures are known to have been lost this year to wildfires in New Mexico. With fires likely to increase under climate change scenarios, new policies may be needed and researchers with Resources for the Future say these policies may need to take into account the demographics of areas with higher levels of fire hazards. The Black Fire—which is close to 200,000 acres—ignited on April 13 and has since grown to be the third largest in state history. It is burning at the same time that the largest wildfire the state has seen—the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire—continues to burn.