Fire officials wary of monsoon's approach

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Jun. 16—Too much heat. Too much wind. Too much drought.

And soon, too much rain — if you can believe it.

Fire officials said the approach of monsoons into the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire zone later this week will bring some welcome relief to a 500-square-mile area that has seen all too little moisture for many months. But in places where the 2 1/2 -month blaze denuded canyons and valleys, there are concerns potentially heavy rain could create debris flow and significant flooding.

The fire grew to 336,638 acres Thursday, driven by the week's double whammy of high temps and low humidity. Early Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Forest Service reported a spot fire developed about a mile north of Beatty's Cabin, moving into dense areas of dead trees in the Pecos Wilderness. A column of smoke visible from Taos and Vallecitos is easily visible, according to a report.

Meanwhile, a moisture flow from the Gulf of Mexico portends rain this weekend, and with it, even more worries.

"The problem have right now is we don't have enough precipitation," said operations section chief Jayson Coil. "We get a lot of precipitation, well, we have another problem."

Lawmakers who toured Northern New Mexico's burn scars joined the chorus of officials Thursday who have been sounding the alarm over the threat of flash flooding, particularly the damage it could inflict on watersheds.

"When these monsoons hit, and I know they're working diligently to try to do some [flood prevention work], those people are in real trouble," Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said during a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee.

"Over this next weekend, as we're looking at the forecast, you should keep them in your prayers because they are solely dependent upon lake water and dam storage water and rainwater to fill their drinking water capacity," he added. "It's going to be a terrible outcome when the monsoons hit and everything comes down the hill completely."

During a briefing Wednesday to discuss the dangers of post-fire flooding, San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said residents should be prepared to evacuate. He urged them to sign up for county cellphone alerts and listen for National Weather Service notifications on their radios.

Las Vegas, N.M.'s drinking water supply system is also in peril.

Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, told the committee "many of the scarred areas are very close" to the city of Las Vegas' watershed.

"Once we start to receive heavy rains, or possibly light rains on the mountaintops, and then as the burned brush, the conifer, the ponderosa pine and the other debris that comes down definitely could make its way into the watershed," he said. "Efforts are currently underway to clear the pathway so that we don't have some of these areas that would be flooded dammed up."

If the monsoons hit as anticipated, Campos, whose district includes all three counties scorched by wildfires this year — Colfax, Mora and San Miguel — said there would be "definite damage," particularly to Las Vegas' domestic water source.

Rep. Ambrose Castellano, D-Serrafina, whose district includes parts of San Miguel County, said flooding would be "detrimental" to Las Vegas.

"They had a flood in 2013, I believe, and it was from bank-to-bank in the river, in the Gallinas River," he said. "But now, they're saying it's going to be ... maybe half a mile into Las Vegas."

Another lawmaker who toured the burn areas, Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, said the work happening to prevent flooding "seems very aggressive." But he said flooding will occur nonetheless.

"All that front-end work, there is still going to be massive flooding," he said. "There's still going to be extensive damage that will be incurred and so it'll be an ongoing recovery and risk mitigation through the entirety of this process."

Lawmakers described a surreal environment in the fire zone.

"It baked the ground," Castellano said. "The trees looked like twigs when we were out there."

Rep. Jack Chatfield, R-Mosquero, said the wildfires burned with intensity.

"The fire burned so hot that it took things back to mineral soil," he said. "There is no organic matter left in that soil, so when it rains, it's going to come down the mountainside."

Coil said firefighters face three major challenges: the fire south of Angostura in Taos County, the stubborn and still-potent blaze facing the eastern edge of the Pecos Wilderness and what he called "reburn" potential in the southern end of the fire.

Reburn, he said, was unburned pine needles and other flammable fuels that ignite again when a nearby fire gets hot again.

But he emphasized the threat of flooding in a heavily burned area should be residents' greatest concern going forward.

"I would submit for everyone listening that the consequence of that [flooding] is greater than the consequence of the problems that I said we're worried about today," he said in a daily briefing Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Midnight Fire in Rio Arriba County grew to 4,919 acres with 16 percent containment. Coil said Thursday's high winds could test containment lines, particularly on the northwest side of the fire as winds blowing from the southeast arrive. More than 404 people are assigned to the incident.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.