[Editor's Note: This is the first of a multi-series of articles on the Grant County Commission work session on June 21, 2022, the only work session this month. It begins with a fairly urgent report from the Gila National Forest addressing the Black Fire and likely flooding impacts during the monsoon.)
By Mary Alice Murphy
Grant County commissioners heard several presentations at the single work session this month held on June 21, 2022.
The second presentation addressed an update on the ongoing Black Fire, which is located in a portion of Grant County.
Henry Provencio, Gila National Forest wilderness district ranger, gave a bit of history. The Black Fire began on May 13, 2022 and has grown to more than 325,000 acres. He reported it is now 68 percent contained, with the majority of the activity currently in the southern part of the fire, especially in the Hillsboro area. Southwest Incident Command Team 4 is managing the fire.
"Although the fire activity is lower now, we want to draw attention to the post-fire," Provencio said. "Flooding is a real concern. The BAER (burn area emergency recovery) team has done an analysis on what the post-fire effects will look like. We are working at a suppression response. In the BAER areas, there is little to no ground cover to soak up any rain. The fire has burned at moderate to high severity. The moderate areas have pockets of trees and grass, but for the most part there is no ground cover."
He emphasized that BAER focuses only on Forest Service property. "It is important to understand they do not do private property recovery. The NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service) is the one to contact to help with private property."
The highest impact of the fire is in the drainages, some of which are high severity, he said. Diamond and Black Canyon have moderate to high severity.
"The downstream resident of the East Fork of the Gila are likely to see floods," Provencio said. "Flows are predicted to be 1,500 times the average two-year event. On the Diamond Canyon, the flows are estimated to be 30,000 times a two-year water event. It is above Grapevine Campground. There is also a bridge in danger and folks who live beyond it would have no way out if the bridge is damaged or washed away."
He said the Mimbres Valley has a likely chance to see greater floods than occurred with the Silver City. "There are buildings in the floodplain down from McKnight Canyon that are in danger of flooding. The homes on the east side of the Mimbres River will be impacted and will not be able to cross the river to get out. Luckily flash floods, as the name implies, happen quickly, but they can damage homes. Below the cultural center in Mimbres is likely to see flooding. What can the county do? The county has opportunities to collaborate with NRCS. Randy (Villa, interim county manager) has already made preliminary contact with them. The soil and water conservation districts can also help out. I also believe the state can help. We're here to help on the BAER efforts. We have maps available. Our BAER work is to mitigate downstream flooding, but we will see flooding."
Provencio said the south side of the fire had not yet experienced rain, which is the Grant County side of the fire. "That is where we are more concerned about flooding. We are likely to see flooding for years."
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said it was helpful to get the information. "The bridge near Grapevine Campground. Is that state or local?"
Villa said it was state and he had already been in conversations with the New Mexico Department of Transportation as well as with the county road superintendent.
Edwards asked about communications with residents beyond the bridge to give them time to get out before a flood.
"The Sheriff's Department is also working to get all of them idenfied and notified," Villa said.
Edwards said she was envisioning all the ash and debris blocking up areas.
"We cut all the willows in the Black Fire area and we are breaching beaver dams to prevent debris backing up," Provencio said. "Most of the fire is in the wilderness. It's a big one 350 miles around. Nature will do what it does to recover. But it's serious."
Edwards said the information about Grapevine campground, the bridge and potential impact on residents on the east side of the Mimbres needs to get out as quickly as possible. "Maybe even door-to-door to get people prepared."
Villa said that was basically what the county was already doing. "The Sheriff's Office put out a news release and put it on Facebook."
Edwards said it was unfortunate that District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas was not present because the Mimbres is his district.
[Editor's Note: Neither Salas nor District 1 Commissioner Chris Ponce were present, due to illness.]
District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said the Sierra County had declared an emergency. "Would it benefit us to declare an emergency?"
Provencio said he would leave that to Villa to decide.
Villa said the county is looking at a declaration of emergency, but for flooding rather than fire. Sierra County's is for fire. "We want to be ready to declare a flood emergency, but we can't really until it floods. But we'll need to do it quickly to get emergency funding. We're working on when the declaration needs to happen. I'm also working with the Sierra County emergency manager. We have hired a new emergency manager, but he won't be on the job for a couple more weeks."
Edwards asked about sand bags.
"Sand is available at the emergency location, the EMS station in Mimbres," Villa said. "We have bags and sand available with your shovel."
District 5 Commissioner and Vice Chair Harry Browne (who was presiding over the meeting) said he was curious about how the Black Fire compares to the Silver Fire.
New Gila National Forest Silver District Ranger Elizabeth Toney said it was a different situation. "The burn severity is less with this fire, but the Black is farther south. A lot of our heavier flooding comes in September, so people need to be prepared."
She said the evacuations due to the Black Fire have been lifted.
Provencio said the dead tree "poles" that remained after the Silver City have fallen and burned in the Black Fire, so they cannot stop any of the water coming from rain pouring down."
To a question, he said that the new GNF superintendent is Camille Powell, coming over from the Lincoln National Forest and beginning in the job on Aug. 15.
To an additional question, Provencio said the fire was human-caused, but still under investigation. "We have progressed in the investigation."