Dog Head Fire one year later in Chilili

Burned trees in the Chilili Land Grant.

When the Dog Head Fire ripped through the East Mountains last year—consuming nearly 18,000 acres in about two weeks, the tiny village of Chilili was hit hard.

Land grant president Juan Sanchez gave The Independent a tour of the burned area inside the land grant, and an update on how the village is doing one year on.

The Chilili land grant’s governing body currently manages about 10,000 acres of what was originally more than 41,000 acres. Of those 10,000, Sanchez said about 4,000 burned last year. Within the historic area of the land grant, some 11,000 acres burned, Sanchez said.

Villagers who stayed behind to battle the blaze were instrumental in keeping any houses in the village from burning, while on nearby Aceves Road some 24 buildings were destroyed.

The biggest concern for the village continues to be erosion. The burned area is hilly with canyons winding through it, and flooding is an ongoing concern, Sanchez said, adding that this year when the monsoons hit will be more telling than last year in terms of erosion damage.

“They say the first year, you get a taste of it, and the second, third year, you see what will happen,” Sanchez said of erosion.

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Crews from the village have spent the past year clearing debris from arroyos which drain toward the village and cross underneath N.M. 337. Some flooding last year came close to going over the top of the road, Sanchez said. The village got “baskets,” or metal cages full of material, which serve to shore up the edges of the arroyo and direct water.

Working in cooperation with the Edgewood Soil and Water Conservation District with funding from a federal agency called the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, the village has “done a lot of mastication,” as Sanchez put it, referring to a gigantic machine that chews up trees.

It was a Forest Service thinning project using a masticator that started the Dog Head Fire last year, according to a report issued months later.

Still, the masticator has been used extensively in the land grant to take down dead trees. “It’s basically for erosion control,” Sanchez explained, but said it’s also “so we don’t have to see toothpicks every day,” referring to the stands of dead trees. “We reseeded all of this, too, in addition to masticating it.”

The Forest Service has not put any money into remediation in the land grant, Sanchez said. “They’ve been here—they’ve been to all the meetings, but money-wise the Forest Service has not put out a penny on private land,” he said. “Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing on forest land.”

As rains have fallen on the burn scar over the past year, tons of silt and ash have washed down the arroyos, and filled up stock ponds. Village crews have worked to keep roads passable, and to keep the stock ponds from filling up. “We’ve been constantly clearing the arroyos, trying to keep the culverts clean,” Sanchez said.

As he drove through the burned areas, Sanchez likened the experience of seeing the dead forest to losing a family member, and said he does not expect to see trees growing there again within his lifetime—or the lifetime of his grandson. “Now it’s the healing process,” he said.

There were things that could have been done better when the fire broke out last year, Sanchez said. Local emergency responders last year were headed up by Torrance and Bernalillo counties, as the impacted area was in both.

Sanchez said that Torrance County understood the autonomy of the land grant and respected their decision to stay and protect homes in the village, while Bernalillo County wanted them out. “Their issue was we had that community bus that we use when we water the rodeo grounds. … There’s been little fires around here and we come with the bus and we turn it off,” Sanchez said. “That was the issue was the bus going back and forth. When they cut the power, we didn’t have water.”

Power was cut to the area to protect firefighters, the county said at the time. “We’re a community that’s going to stick together and protect our village no matter what,” Sanchez said. “Turned out one of the [land grant] heirs had [a generator]. We hooked it up and turned on the water.”

Another concern are the thousands of acres of dead and dying trees. “Those trees can snap and fall at any time, like if you get a little breeze,” Sanchez said. The longer they stand while dead, the more likely they are to fall.

Some of that dead timber can be harvested for firewood, but Sanchez said it would have to be cut before this coming winter.

The village will thin the area between the burn scar and the houses clustered near N.M. 337, and Sanchez said those who have stayed are better-prepared now than they were before.

Still, Sanchez looks at the landscape, where heirs were out on the day of the tour, “making their living from the land,” and sees hope. “One of the things they said they were surprised about was as hot as the fire burned through here, it didn’t burn the soil as much,” he said, referring to the carpet of green below the dead trees, with scrub oak, grasses, flowers and mullein growing. Woodpeckers and other birds were in evidence, and insects were, too. “There’s a couple places in here where there is no grass, nothing, it’s still just black,” he said.

About 150 cows graze in the area still as well, Sanchez said.

“I guess the feeling would be like losing someone in your family. There’s that healing process,” Sanchez said. “You think back—is there anything I could have done different? No. When the fire started it just went. We’re thankful it didn’t take no lives, and no houses inside the land grant.”

Next week, The Independent will look at Forest Service activities since the Dog Head Fire.