Forest thinning activities and prescribed burns have been executed and planned in recent days—even as the Forest Service hosted a Tajique meeting acknowledging its role in starting the Dog Head Fire.
The meeting Saturday brought together about a dozen agencies involved with various aspects of recovery efforts and was facilitated by Rosemary Romero.
The Dog Head Fire ripped through the Mountainair Ranger District near Chilili in mid-June, in an area where Bernalillo and Torrance counties border each other along N.M. 337.
In addition to those parallel jurisdictions, the area includes a border with Isleta Pueblo—which was under contract to do the forest thinning work underway when a machine called a masticator likely struck a rock and started the fire, according to the Forest Service.
There are also land grants including La Merced de Chilili, state lands, Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, which follow different borders.
Then there are additional complications: New Mexico’s anti-donation clause of the constitution, which prohibits government entities from giving financial value to private parties; the homes destroyed were on private land.
It was against this backdrop that residents of the area turned up to hear the update, with some waiting eagerly for release of a report the Forest Service has been promising since this summer.
“It’s complicated, because there’s private landowners really concerned if they lost homes, … federal land, state land, tribal lands,” Romero said, introducing the forum. “We’re trying to get a clear understanding of who’s doing what, where and how.”
Elaine Kohrman is Forest Supervisor, and went through information in the “Dog Head Fire Report” which she later revealed was a summary of a larger collection of documents, which are not being released publicly.
“It’s really hard to talk about,” Kohrman said, her voice wavering. “It’s an unfortunate situation, and really sad. I know it is for you hard to come to this room and have to talk about this—it’s difficult for me, too.”
Kohrman shared additional details of the early hours of the fire: She said there was a 3-person crew from Isleta Pueblo, under contract with the Forest Service, that started the fire.
Kohrman said that there were no fire restrictions in place “because they were not warranted based on our conditions assessment and operating guidelines.” She added that no fire restrictions were in place at the time, meaning that people could start campfires in the forest or burn slash on private land.
“I know you have a lot of questions about that,” Kohrman said. In response to those questions, she said, “We have a process that determines when we put restrictions in place, and we are taking a hard look at that document now as a result of this fire.”
She continued, “I know there’s been questions about why didn’t the crew have a water tender or other things out there and based on the conditions at the time and the contract agreement, a water tender is not what was required at the time of operation.” Kohrman said the crew had a shovel, axe and fire extinguisher on hand.
The operator of the masticator “immediately reported the fire to their supervisor, which was immediately reported to the Forest Service,” she said, adding, “At the same time reports were coming from the Capilla lookout.”
The crew on the ground did not fight the fire, Kohrman said. “By the time the equipment turned around and saw the fire it was about 4 to 5 feet—it was too big to engage the fire in a safe way. So the equipment operator left the fire because it was not safe to fight the fire.”
Kohrman said, “We got as many air resources on that fire the first day as we possibly could.” By the end of the first day, she said there had already been 107,000 gallons of retardant dropped in what would ultimately be a $10 million fire suppression effort.
On the second day of the fire, “the fire appeared to be relatively cool,” according to the report, but a spot fire started about a mile and a half ahead of the initial location.
Dog Head grew to about 2,000 acres the next day and was not at all contained, heading for the village of Chilili.
But it was June 16 that the fire blew up and grew to over 12,000 acres under hot and windy conditions, running within a few miles of relatively dense populations near the intersection of N.M. 217 and 337.
The fire was declared contained July 13, and “controlled” Aug. 10. A month later it was declared out, Kohrman said. “The cost of the fire was over $10 million,” she said, adding, “It is exactly what all of us have been partnering to prevent. It’s very difficult to have to reconcile for me, even, as I’m sure it is for you. … So here we are, trying to figure out how to move forward, work together, keep ourselves as partners to do the right thing and the right work, and help all of you that have suffered losses.”
The first question came from attorney Mark Dow, who said he is representing 15 landowners in the area. It was Dow’s questioning that led to the revelation the Forest Service is releasing only the summary it handed out at the meeting, and not the documents the summary is based on.
Dow asked if the investigation was independent; Kohrman said it was conducted by the Forest Service, but not by the Cibola or regional office, which reports to Washington, DC.
Dow asked if the full investigation report would be made available to the public. “In reality the report is a series of exhibits,” Kohrman explained, adding that it contains pictures, maps, interviews and reconstructions of events. “It’s not literally a report. What we’ve done is prepare a report with the salient facts so the public can have those. … However, our attorneys are not releasing those exhibits because there’s pending litigation.”
Kohrman said that new factors might be considered in entering into fire restrictions, including a new category of “atmospheric instability” created to chart the “new normal” in the Southwest.
Art Swenka is a resident of the area. “Prior to the fire, there were several days of very high winds. Several days, and 90 degree temperatures,” he said, adding, “I have a problem trying to understand that with high winds there wouldn’t be restrictions put in sooner.”
Todd Gates, also of the Forest Service, said “we’ve had four and they’ve all come downhill,” adding that the Manzanos have been “burning different than anything I’ve seen in eight or ten states.”
Roles & Jurisdictions
Soil and Water Conservation districts in the area are the Claunch-Pinto, the East Torrance and Edgewood Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Dee Tarr of Claunch-Pinto said it has been partnering with the other two districts in recovery efforts.
The SWCDs have cost-sharing programs for private land, and can help with erosion control.
Edgewood SWCD’s Dog Head Fire cost-share is a 90 percent to 10 percent split, with the landowner paying 10 percent.
The Edgewood SWCD has gotten funding of $143,100 for the Aceves Road area, where about a dozen homes were consumed by the fire. It has another $217,870 for the Chilili area. According to a document handed out at the event, that cost-share program is being used to help landowners fill in gaps not covered by other agencies.
Edgewood SWCD also got a grant for erosion control “baskets” to the tune of $43,926, “to secure the bridge” in Chilili.
East Torrance SWCD has similar programs; it’s Dog Head Fire cost-share is also a 90-10 percent split. It got funding of $73,000 for the La Para area work and is helping defray the cost of replacing fencing.
The Chilili Land Grant is doing restoration work and flood mitigation inside the land grant. That includes work to repair the fence between the Forest Service and the Land Grant, road work and drainage.
Isleta Pueblo had a few representatives at the meeting, but none spoke. The handout says the pueblo is providing staff, equipment and materials to Chilili and individual homeowners affected.
The Forest Service is heading up BAER efforts, or Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation, in coordination with local governments.
It completed cost assessment for grazing allotments, and has worked on forest roads, restoration of archaeological sites, put up road signs warning of flood danger, and has done weed surveys and other work.
The federal Department of Homeland Security helped by making a loan of a sandbag machine to Torrance County. That was according to emergency manager Javier Sanchez, who said about 4,500 sandbags have been set out.
The Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Geological Survey have provided assistance in technical and permitting issues.
Bernalillo County also made a sand bag machine available, and both counties are offering other services.
Bernalillo County’s floodplain administrator, Don Briggs, said he’s been working on after-fire hydrology, and not ending at N.M. 337 but going “all the way down into Estancia and Tajique.”
The county is offering technical assisance to Torrance County residents regarding flood risk.
New Mexico State Forestry and the New Mexico Environment Department are also involved, with NMED testing wells for contamination.
The Torrance County Assessor will make new property valuations for those who lost homes or structures; that change will be made effective in 2017. That’s according to Nick Sedillo, who works in the office.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has continued its treatment of area forests, with a burn last week in the Sandia Mountains and one planned to start in the next few weeks.
The Thunderbird prescribed fire will begin in the Mountainair Ranger District “when conditions are favorable, likely the last week in October or the first week in November,” according to a press release Monday.
That project is about 3 miles southwest of Manzano and 10 miles north of Mountainair. The area has been thinned, the release says.
Smoke may be visible in the Estancia Valley and could travel as far as Tijeras.
With questions, contact the Mountainair Ranger District at 505-847-2990.
Another proposed project is working its way through the system. The “Cedro Landscape Restoration Project” is expected to enter a 45-day “objection period” starting when environmental assessments and a “Finding of No Significant Impact” are released.
That project is in the Sandia Ranger District and includes 18,800 acres south of Interstate 40.
“This restoration is designed to restore desired conditions, control invasive plants, and manage for sustainable recreation,” the press release says. “Treatments include mechanical (mastication or harvesting equipment) and hand thinning, fuelwood collection, prescribed burning, invasive plant species management, trail rehabilitation and relocation and decommissioning of non-system trails.”
To make an objection or comment on the proposed project, contact Aaron Johnson at 505-281-3304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.