NEWS

Black Fire has charred an area nearly half the size of Rhode Island. Here's what nearby residents have to say.

Watershed damage, flooding concerns for Hillsboro and Kingston residents

Leah Romero
Silver City Sun-News
Smoke is visible from Hillsboro Peak June 15, 2022 following aerial ignitions to form a buffer around Hillsboro Lookout.

GILA NATIONAL FOREST – It's been over a month since the Black Fire was discovered in the Gila National Forest and while the blaze continues to threaten communities and natural structures, monsoonal flooding is now a concern for the residents who live at the southern edge of the forest.

Nearly the entirety of Gila National Forest land in Sierra County has been “destroyed,” according to Lt. Joshua Baker with the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office. He was one of the speakers at a community meeting held in Hillsboro Thursday evening. Residents of Hillsboro, Kingston and surrounding communities packed into the Hillsboro Community Center to hear from fire and county officials.

According to the Friday update from the U.S. Forest Service, the Black Fire has charred 324,132 acres — nearly half the size of Rhode Island — with 50% of the perimeter now contained. Over 1,300 personnel are working to preserve areas and hold off the fire from growing further. The blaze continues to be the second largest wildfire in the state, following the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire in northern New Mexico. That fire has burned 340,980 acres in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and is 72% contained.

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“We've all heard of that fire up in Santa Fe. That's two fires (the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak wildfires started separately and later combined), right, that’s over 300,000 (acres). This (Black Fire) is one fire,” said Aaron Hulburd, incident commandeer for the wildfire. “I would think this is the largest fire in New Mexico history in single fires. It's pretty impressive.”

Residents of Hillsboro, Kingston and surrounding areas gather at a community center to discuss the Black Fire Thursday evening, June 16, 2022.

Residents assess risks, manage fears

Kristin Boren, a resident of Hillsboro for four years, said smoke from the fire has been visible in the community since the fire first started May 13 in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness north of the community. The smoke is worse in the mornings and evenings when it settles in the Percha River valley, which contains the historic communities of Kingston and Hillsboro, plus homesteads between the two.

“Feels a little like camping,” Boren said.

Panic was prominent early on, particularly as similarities were drawn to the 2013 Silver Fire, which burned 138,546 acres and forced Kingston residents to evacuate. Boren said she was not a member of the community at that point, but many jokingly recall the time as the “10-Day Party.”

“Everybody became so close and connected, and it was community at its best coming together,” she said.

Residents of Hillsboro, Kingston and surrounding areas gather at a community center to discuss the Black Fire Thursday evening, June 16, 2022.

Kingston is in the Ready status for evacuation from the Black Fire while Hillsboro remains in the Planning status. Maps from the forest service place the fire roughly 5 and 7 miles from the communities, respectively.

Tom Lander, a resident of Kingston for 29 years, said he and his wife were frantic and started packing items in preparation to evacuate when the Black Fire first started threatening. But now that more time has gone by, he said the couples' anxiety has “tapered off a bit.”

Lander said crews now have more tools to fend off wildfires from devastating communities than crews a decade ago.

“The Forest Service had 450 firefighters in Kingston for the Silver Fire and they had two weeks. And so they were in town pruning, thinning, doing all that work. And the same thing has been happening now and so it's quite impressive. At that time, they didn't have the resources,” Lander said. “They didn't have what are called pumpkins, which are these big like swimming pools where they can dip water out of … they didn’t bring dozers in, they didn’t make hand lines, so they've really done an incredible job of that. And laying sprinklers and hoses and today they were up chipping all day.”

Firefighters work to clear brush in Kingston June 13, 2022 in preparation for the Black Fire.

As monsoonal weather patterns move into the state, flooding has become a concern. Ash from wildfires coats the ground and because it repels water, precipitation can travel into drainages instead of seeping into the ground. This can potentially compromise the watershed in the Percha areas.

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Officials assured residents that the watershed to Percha Creek has not been greatly affected by the wildfire.

Residents are being asked to help with fire suppression and recovery efforts. Officials stressed the need for clearing debris around homes and considering flood insurance. The Sierra County emergency manager said his office will work to help residents coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to understand their options.

Signs thanking firefighters are seen throughout the community of Hillsboro Thursday evening, June 16, 2022.

Thank a firefighter

Nine miles east of Hillsboro, along Highway 152, is a base camp for firefighting personnel. Tents of all sizes and trucks are set up in a flat area off the roadway. Fire crews come and go from the area as shifts change.

When the crews pass into Hillsboro, they are greeted with signs posted throughout the town thanking firefighters.

Boren said she and many of her neighbors sit outside in the evenings holding signs and clapping as the shift change occurs.

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Caleb Anderson is an engine boss with the Yoder Volunteer Fire Department out of Wyoming. He and two others from that fire department were sent to New Mexico to help battle the blaze. The group stayed for 21 days, working the night shift.

A fire incident spokesperson told the Sun-News that fire personnel have traveled from 26 different states to help local resources on the Black Fire.

“The first half of this fire is probably one of the most active fires I’ve been on in a while,” he said.

Anderson and his group were staying at the 152 camp outside Hillsboro. He said much of their work consisted of patrolling and maintaining containment lines. One night, the wildfire made an unexpected run down a canyon. The crew had to do an emergency back burn to keep the flames from crossing the control lines. This ended up being a 24-hour shift.

An incident base is set up outside Hillsboro along Highway 152 for wildfire personnel Thursday evening, June 16, 2022.

Toby Boone of Doña Ana County Fire & Emergency Services has also helped in the firefighting effort, manning a medical tent at base camp and also helping with logistics to lower the risk of fighting the fire.

"We're making sure we get the firefighters out safely," said Boone, who spent two weeks at the camp. "(Medical unit leader) as a whole, your job is to oversee other medical staff to make sure that firefighters are safe. And if we had to evacuate, we can get them out in a timely manner."

Boren emphasized the fact that the communities have come together in the past to support each other and are prepared to do so again if the need should arise.

“I've never loved anywhere that I've lived like I love this place, and it's because of the fact that it truly is a community of people that take care of each other. And it's really unique in that way. Our sheriff for Sierra County, he calls it his Mayberry,” Boren said. “We are not people experiencing something in an isolated way at all. We're experiencing this together, and that makes it so much better.”

Real-time evacuation status can be viewed online at https://nifc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=d375d3d880a649aa914f693db309b892

Leah Romero is the trending reporter at the Las Cruces Sun-News and can be reached at 575-418-3442, LRomero@lcsun-news.com or @rromero_leah on Twitter.