[Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a series of two articles on the Grant County Commission second work session of April, held on April 26, 2022. This concludes the meeting.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

The third presentation at the Grant County Commission April 16, 2022, work session came from Gabe Holguin, Gila National Forest fire staff officer. “I will be giving you a fire status on where we’re at and where we’re headed over the next couple of months.”

He noted the energy release component is significantly above average at most of the stations. “They are exceeding historical maximums for most of the past week – we’re nearing 95 percent. That’s a big indicator of where we’re at. The ERC tells us the available energy per unit square foot within the flaming front of the head of a fire.”

In his presentation he listed the Beaverhead area, where the precipitation is at 62 percent of average for the past 12 months, with October to April seeing only 1.63 inch of precipitation or 29 percent of average. Drought conditions are severe to extreme drought, with the conditions forecasted to persist.

“We model a lot of weather and fire activity at the Beaverhead station,” Holguin said.

He noted that last year had a fairly decent monsoon season and grew a lot of grass, which provides a lot of fuel for fires. The two main factors for the fire season already have been the dryness and the wind. “The East Fire in the Mimbres reached 188 acres within a couple of hours. The wind was clocked at 79 miles per hour in a gust.”

Holguin said a similar fire occurred when a fellow was welding. He had precautions in place, but a spark got stuck in grass and it burned more than 200 acres and grew to 1,500 acres over a day. “And we’re only in April and still wrapping up training.”

He pointed out that the forecast shows no relief in sight, with abnormally high temperatures and well below normal precipitation. “We will have an above normal fire season on the Gila National Forest.”

“We have limited information available for the monsoon season,” Holguin said. “The historical onset is July 7. Predictive services tell us the monsoon should be on time and is expected to be fairly robust.”

He noted that fire restrictions would likely go into effect the next week. “We prefer not going into Stage 2 restrictions unless we see more human-caused fires.”

[Editor’s Note: This information is from April 26, and since then, the national forest has gone into Stage 2 restrictions.]

At the time of the report, he said the Grant County Forest Service airbase already had a type 1 incident management team available, as well as nine engines, four hand crews, two hot shot crews and two helicopters. He said they were expecting a small air tanker. Several Gila National Forest personnel were already working in Arizona and in New Mexico at the Hermit’s Peak fire.

Holguin said the Gila National Forest has established a good relationship with Montana forest service firefighters. “They help us out now when we’re in fire season, and when we’re in the monsoon, they are in fire season, and we help them.”

He highlighted that the fine fuels are driving the fires at the time of the meeting. “We have the potential to see a large number of grass-fed fires, so we have the potential for a severe fire season. We work with the volunteer fire departments, with BLM, and with state forestry. On the timing of restrictions, we coordinate and rely on their help. We have had this year a very limited opportunity to complete prescribed burns to reduce pinyon and juniper. Juniper is a tough species to deal with. It’s a weedier species, so when we find the right conditions, which are usually on the edge of extreme, we try to treat them. When we do a prescribed burn, we need to establish control of the fire lines. Our overall theme for response to fires on the Gila is that we like to manage them, because the fires to treat the landscape as a benefit. This year, we feel like we have to suppress any that occur because of the dry fuel. I would caution everyone to use fire with extreme caution this year. We’re pretty good at suppressing them, but we can’t always control fires, so we have to plan for events.”

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne said he had received appreciation from friends about the control of the East Fire in Mimbres. “They were pleased that you let them cut their own fire line with permission, and they said the crew from Montana was critical to save property. They also credited the volunteer firefighters for their work. The question I have is about power lines.” He asked if it was possible to cut off power when there is a danger of falling poles starting a fire.

Holguin said they don’t use pre-emptive cutting off of power, but “we can cut it off in response to a fire.”

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said people can be prepared. “The state has put out fire restrictions. Whose restrictions have priority?”

Holguin said the state does not have jurisdiction over national forests.

Edwards asked about prohibiting fireworks.

County Manager Tim Zamora said he and Randy Villa, county fire management officer, were already talking about restrictions.

Villa thanked Holguin for coming. “We, in the county, try to follow other agencies with our restrictions. Silver City has already gone into restrictions today.”

Edwards said her comment would likely be unpopular. “We’re seeing a lot of off-highway vehicle activity. Does that kind of activity in the forest have any impact on fire activity?”

Holguin said as far as he knows, they haven’t caused fire activity. “We have had numerous fires caused by chains dragging from the back of trucks.”

“How do you know the fires are caused by chains dragging?” Edwards asked.

“They leave a trail of starts in the grasses along the road,” Holguin said. “They are like cookie crumbs.”

Daniel Graves, DWI coordinator, also gave a presentation. “We are working on a DWI program on the impact of legalized marijuana. We plan an ad campaign and a campaign on awareness. The recreational use is allowing amounts to be carried and to be grown. There still are fines and jail time for amounts above 2 ounces of carried marijuana. We will also be informing people of the restriction on the number of plants allowed to be grown. There are also restrictions around school zones. The ad campaign will address youth. We will say that just because marijuana is now legal, that doesn’t make it safe. The New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency survey that is done every other year, with the last one from 2019 is taken by our high school and middle school students. In 2019, about 39.9 percent of high school students said they were currently using marijuana, and that was prior to it being legal. For middle schoolers, it was 16 percent. Before the age of 11, about 3 percent said they had used. Those are above state numbers.”

Edwards asked what synthetic marijuana is and where it is sold.

Graves said it is sold in several places in Grant County, including Twisted Illusion and Hooka. They have been able to get around the regulations, he said. Smoke shops are still regulated.

He said they are talking about marijuana in the DWI Program school outreach programs, as well as in the Driver’s Ed curriculum to include its effects on driving. During the summer, DWI will do presentations in parks and will have a table at the Fourth of July to talk about the dangers of marijuana use. “On enforcement, we plan to support law enforcement through additional funding for saturation patrols and DWI checkpoints. This is important due to the increase we are seeing. The Grant County DWI program had a 6 percent increase in the amount of DWIs in the year since April 4, 2021, through April 4, 2022. We can try to corral it now.”

Browne said he was confused about enforcement on DWI related to marijuana. “If a car is stopped, can a cop bring someone in, if they smell marijuana?”

Graves said if there were probable cause, because driving impaired is still illegal. “We are working on getting a portable unit that can be used in the field.”

Browne said, in about a month, “I have three times, when I’ve been outside my house, I can smell marijuana when a vehicle drives by.”

“I think they think smoking is legal,” Graves said, “but it is only legal in the home, not when driving.”

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said he was confused. “Even in DWI, you have to test for impairment. I would like to get up-to-date on this. I have a lot of questions. We need some sort of level, such as the 0.08 level of alcohol.”

Edwards said she thinks a lot of issues that haven’t been addressed are going to be addressed. “In 2019, when we heard a presentation on marijuana, they said the lack of enforcement was due to not being able to enforce around impairment.”

District 2 Commission Javier “Harvey” Salas asked if any studies had been done on the impacts of CBD or THC.

Graves said a few had been done, but not many. “Some are showing an IQ loss in youths, but they haven’t expanded the studies into adults. THC is the concentrated form and is being increasingly used for medical marijuana. The marijuana today is 200-300 percent stronger than what was used in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.”

Edwards noted that because marijuana is still not legal at the federal level, there is no federal funding available for studies.

Zamora said he would ask the contracted attorney, Ben Young of Mynatt, Martinez and Springer and the sheriff to get something together on legal enforcement.

Ponce said the public also needs education, “in this case, on what’s OK and what’s not OK.”

Graves said he would bring it up at the New Mexico Counties DWI coordinator affiliates meeting. “I know that some of the state receipts from marijuana sales will be set aside for education.”

The final presentation addressed the (at that time) upcoming 72nd Anniversary of the Empire Zinc Mine Strike.

[Editor’s Note: Please visit https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/72060-empire-zinc-mine-strike-commemoration-and-plaque-placement-051422 for an article and photo essay of the event]

Lynn Godoy Baca, representing the LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) local unit 8003, said the organization would host the anniversary on May 14, 2022, at 10 a.m. in Hanover.

Frances Vasquez gave some history, after handing each commissioner a flyer. “LULAC is the oldest civil rights organization in the United States, established in 1929 in Texas. Mr. Albert and Mrs. Delores Castrillo grew up in Grant County. Albert worked at Kennecott and retired from Phelps Dodge. He has always had a fondness and love of history of our community, and particularly the history of the Empire Zinc Mine strike of 1950, ’51 and ’52. He has paid particular attention to a plaque placed in Hanover about 1990 that listed the known females who had participated in that strike. If you remember, the men were picketing for better working conditions and pay, and a person went to a local judge and the judge determined it was illegal for the men to be picketing. That ended their picketing, but the next day, the women, with their children, went on the picket line. At one point 150 women and children were incarcerated in the Grant County jail, as a result of their picketing. Ultimately, it ended in a settlement in 1952. It is significant history of our community, and not everyone is aware of it. Mr. Castrillo noted that the plaque was deteriorating, and he did not want to lose the history, so he went to Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill and requested funding for a replacement plaque. She went to Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, and they conspired to get the funding for a replacement plaque. They also needed a concrete slab for the plaque, so Siah, who along with Howie, is a LULAC member, came to us and asked us to help. We gladly cooperated, but we felt it could not go unnoticed, so we planned this celebration. The property belongs to Freeport, and we have their permission to be there that day. We have permission from the county to block off part of the road. We want to raise awareness, and we have a great list of speakers. Through the generous gift from Grant County Title Company, we will have a reception after the event at the Bayard Community Center.”

“We dedicated that new bridge in Hanover to the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Empire Zine Mine strike in 1990,” Albert Castrillo said. “As Frances said, I saw the plaque deteriorating, so I contacted Siah. The cement was all messed up, and Siah supported me right away and directed me to Frances and Lynn to get this dedicated. They have helped me organize the ceremony we will have. I hope everyone can show up and support the ladies who must not be forgotten.”

Kevin Hubbs, administrative assistant, said a proclamation would be presented at the May meeting.

Under discussions, the commissioners discussed a resolution directing publication of a notice of intent to consider an ordinance for the purpose of authorizing the issuance of Grant County, New Mexico gross receipts tax revenue refunding bonds, series 2022 and specifying the delegation of responsibility to certain officials to determine the final terms of such bonds.

County Bond Attorney Luis Carrasco said the ordinance was straight-forward. “The resolution calls for the notice of intent to be published. The ordinance discusses the GRT bonds to refund bonds against the 2014 bonds for interest savings.” He went through the various sections.

Mark Valenzuela of Bosque Advisors, county financial advisor, said the ordinance requires a savings of 3 percent from the previous bond rate. “The rates are going up and down every day. I will not recommend approval of this ordinance unless the difference is at least 3 percent. I will create a compilation of county information so investors can evaluate county credit. Investors can include the New Mexico Finance Authority, as well as private entities. It is a municipal bond, so it puts the risk on the investors. NMFA is separating away from bond marketing, because it is not traditional for public agencies. We are prepared to support you, along with the bond attorney.”

Browne asked Valenzuela to talk about the underwriters carrying the risk.

“We get paid a fee to identify investors for the beat deal,” Valenzuela said. “My job is to push back to make sure you are getting the best deal. There are a number of variables. For instance, you’re being underwritten to sell close to the amount of the bond. If they can’t do that, they buy it themselves.”

Browne asked what the threshold was.

Valenzuela said: “You’re paying 3.5 percent now. If you can get 2.5 percent, you’ll be at about a 3 percent direct saving.”

The following discussion was on upcoming Planning Department and Code Enforcement ordinances.

Planning and Community Development Department Director Priscilla Shoup said she had been working with Young on a draft ordinance for abandoned buildings, as well as a junk vehicle ordinance.

Young said he is in the process of creating the draft, by looking at similar ordinances to what he believes the Commission would envision. It would allow citizens to bring civil complaints or lawsuits against neighbors who violate the ordinances.

Zamora said the county is asking for feedback from the commissioners on items they would want the ordinance to address.

Browne said similarly to a recent ordinance on solar gardens, “I have a problem singling out a single industry.”

Young said he had a similar thought process. “I think having a mention about nuisance in the ordinance would be good, but there’s not much out there to compare to.”

Browne asked why it could not just be a resolution.

Young said his concern with a resolution rather than an ordinance is that a resolution applies within the walls of the county, but not outside the building. “If we have an ordinance, there are requirements and there is an option to apply for funding. I think it would be beneficial to have a conversation offline.”

Ponce asked for a draft copy ahead of the meeting, so the commissioners could read it.

Young said he expected to have the solar garden ordinance by the meeting in May, as well as the abandoned building ordinance and is trying to get the vehicle ordinance drafted, too.

During commissioner reports, Salas emphasized how important the celebration was for the Empire Zinc Mine strike. “I don’t think recent residents of Grant County realize the impact this action had. I’m calling on Grant County to be there to celebrate the county as the birthplace of unions. I realize the tremendous impact it had on discrimination and pay.”

Browne said Salas read their minds. “I would like to thank the organizers of Earth Day and the Continental Divide Trail Days celebrations. So far, 600 hikers are registered and heading north. We have 50 percent more than last year. I think we are wise to be talking about outdoor recreation and the economy. I also have concerns about loving the wilderness and the Gila River to death, as they are fragile environments.”

He said he liked that there had been no COVID hospitalizations for months. According to Browne, the latest statistics show that the unvaccinated are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and several times more likely to die than the vaccinated.

“On Saturday, a friend and an impactful person on Grant County, Greg Renfro, died,” Browne said. “He was a musician, one of those people that makes a place special. I wanted to honor him.”

Edwards said she would let the chairman speak about fireworks, but “when I see what the news says about fires in California, Arizona and New Mexico, I am concerned. A small fire can become huge and destructive quickly. We saw that happen with the Quail Ridge Fire. What about our resources? How much water is needed to fight fires? These are really big and complex issues that we must face. I’ve read a lot about the emissions we face from some of these fires. I want to be more proactive in fire restrictions. I think we need a more aggressive way to prepare for fire. Those 600 people who are using our forest, I’m wondering if they know about the dangers and how they are using our forest. I want us to be pro-active. I’m thinking about that fire in Ruidoso that will set them back economically and environmentally for a long time.”

Ponce noted that he forgot to say that District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings was absent, because he was feeling under the weather.

“I want to thank everyone who helped put out the East Fire,” Ponce said. “We need a plan for when these things happen. I would like to know where the shelters are, where the command post is. All other years, we have forgotten about fireworks restrictions until as late as June. Not only can one spark a fire, but they also have a huge impact on veterans and pets.”

Zamora noted the county can implement fire restrictions with the fire management officer.

Browne said he thinks the county needs an ordinance to ban the sale of fireworks. “I’m interested in doing that.”

Edwards said she wanted the ordinance in May.

Zamora said he would verify whether it was possible, and “I will make sure we have something in May.”

Ponce said he was more interested in the use of fireworks and the enforcement because people can buy fireworks elsewhere.

Edwards said: “What always comes up is the gross receipts taxes the county gets from the sale of fireworks, but the cost of fighting a fire is enormous. And I don’t like the impact they have on veterans and pets.

Salas said the way he understood it is that the county can ban the sales but cannot ban the use.

Ponce echoed the appreciation for Earth Day and for the WNMU Great Race. “It looked like Silver City and the county are getting back to normal. I appreciate all the organizations and what they do for the community.”

The meeting adjourned.

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