New Mexico wildfire scar burn has forestry officials worried

SANTA FE, NM (AP) — As more than 3,000 firefighters in northern New Mexico continued to battle the nation’s largest active wildfire on Sunday, federal forestry officials worried about future flash floods, landslides of land and destructive ash from the burn scar.

The 7-week blaze, the largest in New Mexico history, remained 50% contained after charring 492 square miles (1,274 square kilometers) of rugged terrain east of Santa Fe.

Two planned burns merged to form the massive fire at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

One of the fires was previously traced to April 6, when a planned burn by US Forest Service firefighters to clear small trees and brush was declared out of control.

On Friday, investigators said they traced the source of the second blaze to the remnants of a blaze predicted in January that lay dormant through several snowstorms only to flare up again last month.

Firefighting costs already top $132 million, climbing $5 million a day, authorities say.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has already asked President Joe Biden to order the Federal Emergency Management Administration to pay all costs related to a wide range of recovery efforts.

A Forest Service burn area emergency response team has begun releasing data from its post-fire assessments.

Micah Kiesow, crew chief and soil and watershed program manager for the Santa Fe National Forest, said the steep mountain slopes acted like a sponge before the fire.

“After the fire in some of these areas, especially the high ground burn severity areas and the moderate areas, we’re now looking at a steep incline that’s more like a parking lot,” Kiesow told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

He said it could signal an “extreme change in catchment response” during the monsoon season.

Flooding presents another problem for communities near the burn scars, Kiesow says, with ash pouring into rivers and streams.

Many water treatment facilities are not equipped for the expensive and time-consuming process of filtering ash. Experts say ash and debris can harm water quality with high levels of nitrates and phosphorus.

A Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey risk assessment shows that some areas burned in the New Mexico Fire could see heavy debris flows if they receive about 0.25 inches of rain in 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, firefighters hoped to continue making progress on the fire before drier, warmer weather with higher winds could return through Monday.

“This fire still has a lot of potential,” said Carl Schwope, incident commander for the Southwest Fire Management Team which has been battling the wildfire for 52 days.

Early estimates show the blaze destroyed at least 330 homes, but state officials expect the number of homes and other structures that have burned to reach more than 1,000 as more other assessments are made.

Elsewhere, 150 firefighters continued to battle a wind-driven blaze that scorched more than 8½ square miles (22 square kilometers) of grass, brush and salt cedar on the Arizona-California border.

The fire started Thursday at the Colorado River Indian Reservation, 15 miles southwest of Parker, Arizona.

Wind gusts of up to 30mph (48kph) forced the evacuations of 15 homes on both sides of the river on Saturday and brought the lockdown figure down from 44% to 34%.

However, firefighters said evacuees would likely be allowed to return home on Sunday evening. The cause of the forest fire remained under investigation.

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