First came the New Mexico fires, now come the floods
Northern New Mexico residents are left on their own to face major flooding
This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico.
TIERRA MONTE — Two weeks after the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire tore across his family ranch, Jerry Gomez stood among the melted wreckage of tools, vehicles and memories in his uninsured garage, forced a smile and vowed to rebuild.
But when rain appeared in the weather forecast late last week, his smile disappeared. Gomez knew that even a modest rainfall could threaten his severely burned mountain property with flooding and landslides. In the days remaining, he hauled in bulldozers and backhoes to reinforce the banks of a pond that sits just uphill from the house he already started rebuilding.
"You don't know which way to spend the money you have — whether on rebuilding or saving whatever is left," he said.
The fires are extinguished in many of the communities hit by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, but people living near severely burned patches of forest have been forced to pause in their recovery efforts to prepare for the monsoon rains. There are high chances of rain in areas of the burn scar through Thursday, with heavy rain expected Tuesday night.
Some residents say they’ve been warned of the possibility of a 500-year flood. Experts warn that even half an inch of rain within a 30-minute period can cause landslides and overwhelm rivers.
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Despite these dire predictions, most flood mitigation programs haven't yet kicked in. For many residents in the area, the stress of preparing for yet more destruction has pushed them to a boiling point.
"The race against time is the biggest problem," said Max Trujillo, a San Miguel County commissioner. "There are tons of organizations that are going to help eventually, but it just doesn't seem like there is the same level of organization for post-fire as there is for a current fire."
Why do floods follow fire?
Whenever it rains in a healthy forest, the trees, soil and smaller vegetation soak up much of the water that hits the ground. What doesn't feed the plants slowly makes its way through the soil and runoff channels into rivers and streams.
What happened in parts of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire made normal absorption impossible. The fire burned so intensely in some areas that it blackened trees and turned vegetation and brush to ash. In such severe burns, the superheated plant material leaves behind a waxy substance that leaches into the soil and causes it to repel water.
These so-called "hydrophobic soils" — along with the absence of living trees — convert an ordinary raindrop into a high-caliber artillery round. Free from branches to slow its descent, the raindrop hits the water-resistant soil with such force that it can tear earth away from the ground before slipping down a mountain unimpeded. As many raindrops hit the surface and sweep down a mountainside, they pick up the loosened soil, forming a heavy mud flow.
"There's a lot of power behind that — power to scour to move rocks, boulders and logs," said Kit MacDonald, a soil scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. "And when this torrent reaches a river or stream, it can cause it to overflow, carving out deep, damaging channels and leaving behind ash and debris that can damage water quality for years.
A scramble to prepare
Even with their resources diminished by the still-burning fires, emergency managers are scrambling to ramp up their alert systems.
“The most difficult task we have encountered is notification,” said David Dye, secretary for the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Damaged infrastructure — cell towers, roads and bridges — have limited the ability of emergency alert systems to reach people. In response, emergency managers plan to broadcast flood warnings on 540 AM radio, which has one of strongest signals in the area. On Friday, officials went door to door with flyers warning residents of the potential floods.
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People who live near rivers or on steep slopes have already started preparing. Last week, just days before the first spate of projected rainfall, brothers Charles and Kenny Martinez were stacking sandbags along the back of their workshop, mere feet from Gallinas River.
Their ad-hoc flood mitigation is mostly guesswork based on the water levels they remember from the 2013 floods. That was a 100-year flood event, but, depending on the rains, these floods could be much worse. The Martinezes, lifelong Gallinas residents, said they’d reached out to the Forest Service and local government, but the only help came from the county, which delivered sandbags to a lot near the fire station for residents.
"To get help it's like talking to a wall," said Kenny Martinez. "We'll just work until it gets dark and then get up early in the morning to keep going."
Beyond material resources, residents say they've struggled to even get technical advice from experts on what interventions they should do on their own.
Rob Roach has a home near a steep slope that burned in the fire. He said he reached out to the State Forestry Division for help designing flood mitigation plans for his property, but couldn't find anyone providing even the most basic technical advice. He did his own research and designed a plan, which he estimates will cost about $20,000 by the time he’s done.
"New Mexico has good guidelines about fire prevention, but for this there are no concepts, no help," Roach said. "Right now, people are really frustrated."
Government officials note that there are large pools of federal money available for post-fire recovery, and that groups like the Natural Resources Conservation Service offer assistance to private landowners. But while assessors are working to analyze properties for possible mitigation work, the NRCS will not provide money or technical assistance until after all assessments are completed.
In the meantime, several offices have initiated watershed protection efforts. Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the first tier of a series of rock-filled metal cages in the Gallinas River to protect the intake structures for Las Vegas' drinking water systems. Called "gabion baskets," these cages are designed to block debris from damaging water infrastructure and to filter out ash from drinking water supplies.
The Hermits Peak Watershed Coalition and the Tierra Y Montes Soil and Water Conservation District have introduced small projects to prevent major flooding damage to the Gallinas Watershed. That work will continue throughout the summer. But as with all mitigation work, its effectiveness will depend on the severity of the floods. The State Forestry Division is also coordinating erosion control within the Gallinas and Tecolote drainages and at the headwaters on Forest Service land.
"We do have some tools in our bag and some are really good," said Lea Knutson, the director of the Hermits Peak Watershed Alliance. "We have to give it our best, but it really totally depends on how the rain comes."
- Emergency managers are urging all residents in potential flood zones to turn on their cell phone alerts and location services. Early alert flood gauges are in place to warn downstream residents who may be unaware of oncoming floods. They also warn that property owners cannot effectively defend their homes from floods by remaining on-site and urge evacuation in the event of a flood or landslide.
- Flood warnings will be issued on 540 AM radio.
- People who need assistance evacuating due to disability or lack of transportation can call the New Mexico Help Line for assistance prior to a flood event at 800-432-2080.
- The Natural Resources Conservation Service's Emergency Watershed Protection Program has teams on the ground assessing private property for mitigation work. Property owners can request assistance through the program until June 24 by contacting Kenneth Branch at 505-761-4454 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Work will begin once all properties have been assessed.
- Flood insurance can be purchased through FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program. For most policies there is a 30-day waiting period for coverage to begin.
Lindsay Fendt writes for Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.