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.
The western United States has experienced some of the largest fires in recorded history in recent years and the smoke from those blazes has impacted human health and the environment. Now politicians from several of the states impacted by the fires are pushing for increased funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor wildfire smoke. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico, joined five other Democratic senators representing California and Arizona in urging the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies to increase the funding by $20 million to allow for a more equitable deployment of monitoring equipment. These senators sent a letter to the committee’s leaders. “The President’s Budget requests $12.7 million for the EPA to improve communications related to wildfires and air quality and to expand local smoke monitoring capacity.
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.
Climate change is contributing to the large wildfires that western states like New Mexico are experiencing, and scientists say humans need to make changes to prevent worse fire risks. New Mexico’s largest wildfire in recorded history surpassed 300,000 acres this week and it is not the only large fire burning as the state experiences hot, dry conditions and very low humidity. A study published this month in the journal Ecology Letters found that wildfire risks are going to increase in states like New Mexico. By the end of the century, the study states that “high levels of fire risk, which were historically confined to pockets in California and the intermountain western US, are projected to expand across the entire western US.”
William Anderegg, a University of Utah associate professor, is one of the co-authors who led the study. As he was studying climate stress and risks, Anderegg said it was a bit surprising, and also depressing, how much the fire risk increased in high climate change scenarios.
Outside of the Glorieta Adventure Camp dining hall, 56-year-old Lisa Blackburde was having an emotion-filled conversation with a couple of other evacuees.
Nearly three weeks ago, as the fast-moving Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire made a run toward her home near Ledoux, Blackburde heeded a mandatory evacuation order that had already been in place for days. Her boyfriend, Michael Pacheco, remained behind to save what he could. “He was a seasonal firefighter for the state,” she said, “so he knows what he’s doing.” They have a horse, a dog, 13 cows and three new calves. “And four of the cows are still expecting.”
This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. If Pacheco hadn’t stayed to put out spot fires, she was sure it would have all gone up in flames.
As the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire continues to grow, New Mexico’s Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to increase the aid available to people who have lost their homes, businesses and other property. The joined fires have now grown to be the largest wildfire in state history at 259,810 acres. Tens of thousands of New Mexicans have been forced to leave their homes. More than 200 people have lost their homes. The Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act would set up an Office of Hermits Peak Fire Claims within the Federal Emergency Management Agency to process claims of property loss, business loss and financial loss.
Recent rain and snow in parts of New Mexico have brought a temporary reprieve from the high fire dangers, but officials warn that the vegetation can dry out quickly and that precautions should be taken to prevent and prepare for wildfire. “My biggest concern and concern from fire management is that people may become complacent because we have had a little bit of rain,” Teresa Rigby, a fire education and mitigation specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, told NM Political Report. She said New Mexico is in fire season and that will continue through June and possibly into July. “It really doesn’t take that much for things to turn around and where it was wet one day the next day it can burn,” she said. Fire restrictions reevaluated in some national forests
The U.S. Drought Monitor, which releases a map every Thursday showing current drought conditions, shows slight improvements in drought in New Mexico this week compared to the previous week.
On a dry and dusty afternoon in August, a white hot bolt of lightning zipped down from a thunderhead to the parched land below, sparking the dry grass of the Caja del Rio plateau. A few hours later, acres of land on the plateau were aflame and thick black smoke was billowing up from the landscape as the wildfire grew.
At the time, the Forest Service was already battling the Medio Fire, a larger wildfire burning northwest of Santa Fe in the Santa Fe National Forest. Early reports based on aerial surveillance estimated the Caja del Rio fire had burned 600 acres of land, but the Forest Service later revised the fire’s footprint down to 158 acres. One week later, the Caja del Rio fire was considered contained, while the Medio Fire still raged some 30 miles north. It would take another three weeks before that fire was fully contained.
The Medio Fire, which burned some 4,000 acres, returned attention to the impacts of climate change on New Mexico’s landscape, and the role of wildfire in forest management.
There’s a stretch of land in the Jemez Mountains that has been empty for decades. It’s a burn scar from a fire that burned in the 1950s.
The vegetation is still recovering from that fire. Cynthia Naha, a member of the Hopi tribe who works for Santo Domingo Pueblo, said she saw some trees returning to the area when she visited during a recent trip.
“We’re starting to see some of that timber come back,” Naha told NM Political Report. “Seventy years and you see that regeneration there.”
The 1950 burn scar, along with burn scars left by more recent catastrophic fires in the area, including the Cerro Grande fire of 2001 and the Las Conchas fire of 2011, serve as a historical record carved into the landscape, documenting the legacy of fire suppression that governed forest management for most of the 20th century.
As the climate warms and aridification spreads across much of the west, it’s clear the threat of catastrophic fires isn’t going away—in fact, it’s getting worse. But forest managers are increasingly turning to landscape-scale management, and large prescribed burns, as one tool to keep forests healthy and reduce the risk of a megafire.
“At some level we have a choice,” said Zander Evans, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Stewards Guild.
The U.S. Forest Service is in the middle of a major update to forest management plans. Four National Forests in New Mexico — the Santa Fe, Carson, Cibola and Gila national forests — are now in various stages of the multi-year process to update management plans from the 1980s.
The Forest Service has the difficult task of balancing its management plan for a host of diverse uses, ranging from resource management, recreational use, wildlife conservation and wildfire management. There has been a recent push by conservation groups to protect wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity by designating more portions of the National Forest as wilderness. But the discussion on how best to protect habitat has shone a light on another important component of forest management — one that’s a bit more controversial among residents: wildfire. Earlier this summer, the Santa Fe National Forest released the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, a vegetation management project proposal designed to improve ecosystem resiliency to wildfire.