A community meeting was held Monday evening at the Cliff-Gila Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall to explain to residents how the Forest Service, Grant County and other agencies are collaborating to mitigate the expected flooding as a result of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex, which is still burning in its interior.
Al Koss, Burned Area Emergency Response public information officer on the fire, moderated the meeting.
"Ten of us are on the fire currently," Tory Kendrick, incident commander for the fire, said. "We flew it this morning. It took us two hours to get around the perimeter. We are at 87 percent containment, but people are keeping eyes on the fire."
He said 20- to 40-acre parcels in the interior were still burning out.
"If anything changes, we will have a presence here," Kendrick said.
Koss explained the BAER process, in which the team looked at the satellite maps and, on the ground, determined the high severity burns.
"Our goal now is how to slow down erosion and water runoff from the watersheds of Whitewater and Mineral creeks into Glenwood and Alma, and from Willow Creek into Willow Creek and the West Fork of the Gila," Koss said. "The BAER dollars can only be spent on federal land to protect life, property, and natural and cultural resources downstream. We have a lot of modeling, and our predictions are based on a 25-year, six-hour precipitation event."
The BAER findings were taken to Gila Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell, who approved them, sent them to the regional forester, Corbin Newman, who then forwarded them to Washington, D.C., for final approval.
"They were approved and we got about $12 million for treatments," Koss said. "In the heavily burned areas, about 16,000 acres, we will do aerial seeding and aerial straw mulching. The fire burned everything there. We want the seed and straw to impede erosion and runoff. The treatment on the West Fork will be seeding. To allow an opportunity for the water to run into the moderate and lightly burned areas, we will use a mix of New Mexico native grass seed and barley, which germinates quickly."
Treatments also include roadwork to prevent washouts. The Catwalk Bridge will be removed to prevent debris collection. Signage will warm people of the dangers of flash flooding.
Alert monitors will be put on Mogollon Baldy, Hummingbird Saddle and Bear Wallow to monitor extreme rains in high elevations. The monitors will tie into the National Weather Service, which can call computers, phones and the Sheriff's Department.
Requests for bids have already gone out and contracts are being drafted to provide the seeding and mulching.
"The goal is to have the treatments on the ground before the damaging rains come," Koss said. "We hope for gentle rains to soak in. These treatments worked in other places, such as areas of the Wallow Fire and the White Fire."
Anthony Gutierrez, Grant County planner Gila Valley resident, described the preparations the county is implementing.
"We have a different situation from Glenwood," Gutierrez said. "People here are more aware of what the river can do."
He said the large number of non-permanent structures along the river are dangerous.
"We want to permit to salvage roads and bridges," Gutierrez said. "Permitting is a lengthy process, but through the emergency declaration from the governor's office, we got an emergency permit
He thanked Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. and T.J. McCauley for their help on highway 211. He said McCauley was working to protect the riparian areas for endangered species.
Gutierrez said the Department of Transportation would permit the highway 180 and 211 bridges for removal of vegetation and shoring up.
"We want to prevent the isolation of residents in an island around Gila," he said. "If Bear Creek is running high, we can't get people in and out.
"Unless you participate in the national flood insurance program, there is no money for private land and property," Gutierrez said. "The National Resource Conservation Service has only limited funding. Grant County is concentrating on infrastructure.
"The Corps of Engineers went to bat for us to get permits within three days, and the Environment Department let the permitting go quickly to save roads and bridges."
Jean Fortenberry of Grant County Dispatch explained Reverse 911. "If you have a landline phone, you are probably already enrolled."
The link to sign up for the service for cell phone and email is http://alerts.deltalert.com/optin/start.xhtml?clientId=142409732 . The link can also be found on the town of Silver City and Grant County's websites.
"When an alert needs to be sent out, Dispatch is notified," Fortenberry said. "We will determine the epicenter of the alert area and will pan out for miles. A recorded message will go out telling you what to do."
She cautioned that often when an alert is sent out, "people do not listen to the message, but immediately call Dispatch, which just ties up the lines," Fortenberry said. "So listen to the message, and unless you have an emergency, please don't tie up the lines, unless you really need information."
Melanie Goodman of U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman's office had handouts for residents, including a flood insurance program resource sheet. She said Sens. Bingaman and Tom Udall, as well as Congressman Steve Pearce, had introduced bills to expedite the waiver of the 30-day requirement to obtain flood insurance. She cautioned residents to locate insurance agents who are knowledgeable about the flood insurance program.
The rest of the meeting, including questions and answers will be covered in a subsequent article.