End of New Mexico's largest fire in sight after heavy rains

·4 min read

Jun. 28—The largest wildfire in New Mexico's history, which at times felt never-ending, is now nearing its finale.

Heavy rains over the weekend from an early monsoon helped crews to quell the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which has raged for more than two months after a pair of prescribed burns that went awry merged into an inferno — searing a 534-square-mile area and wreaking untold damage on the landscape, watersheds, communities and infrastructure.

Experts say it will take years to recover from a fire that has burned almost 342,000 acres. But the end of the blaze appeared near as officials reported 92 percent containment and almost no movement Monday.

One of fire managers' main concerns Monday was extracting equipment stuck in the mud; a vast change from last week when teams were still locked in combat, battling the fire and trying to predict where the flames might spread next.

"This fire is not going to move again," said Gerry Perry, a spokesman for the incident management team handling the fire. "We've had sufficient rain over the fire scar. The soil is pretty well saturated."

The decreasing personnel on the fire's 667-mile serpentine perimeter also reflects the worst being over. There were 1,356 team members at the burn area Monday, less than half of the 3,000-plus people deployed at the fire's peak.

The fire has destroyed at least 300 homes. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said as many as 1,200 could be damaged or destroyed, based on aerial imagery.

As of Monday, 903 structures have been lost in the blaze and firefighting costs have reached $263 million, Governor's Office spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in an email, citing a report from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Officials in San Miguel and Mora counties couldn't be reached to discuss their latest estimates of the damage and costs.

Rains doused much of the fire's southern portion with 2 to 3 inches over the weekend, while lighter precipitation dampened the northern part, said Scott Stearns, the incident management team's meteorologist, in a Monday weather briefing.

Stearns said drier weather is expected in the next few days, which is welcome because the ground and forest fuels are wet enough to keep the fire from re-igniting. Any further rainfall will yield diminishing benefits and create more runoff, he said.

The precipitation — much of which came as a steady drizzle — has increased humidity, another factor in making the fire abate, he said.

Rains also have turned much of the burn area muddy, making it extremely difficult to operate heavy equipment without damaging the ground and unpaved roads, Cory Carlson, a fire operations planner, said in a Monday briefing.

It also is compelling the team to leave the equipment parked until conditions are dry enough to avoid causing damage, which could take several days, Carlson said.

"We still have equipment that's 14 miles in, so [it's] unable to move out of there because of the road conditions," Carlson said.

With the fire on the way to being fully contained, a chief concern now is flash floods on hillsides, where the fire has destroyed tree cover, consumed vegetation and charred the soil, leaving nothing to catch and absorb rainfall.

So far, flooding hasn't been a problem.

One resident near Las Vegas, N.M., reported a flooded field and another person south of the city called about a tree that had fallen across a creek, prompting a crew to remove it to prevent the water from backing up, Perry said.

Although runoff has swelled the Gallinas River and Tecolote Creek, they haven't overflowed yet and no one has had to evacuate, said Travis Martinez, a spokesman for the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"Everything is still within the banks," Martinez said.

The U.S. Forest Service last week released a damning report of missteps managers made with the prescribed burn that ignited the Hermits Peak Fire, which began in April when unanticipated gusts blew a prescribed burn out of control. This blaze later combined with the Calf Canyon Fire, which forest officials said ignited from a "sleeper fire" that smoldered underground for months after a January pile burn.

Meanwhile, the Black Fire, which had raged in Southwest New Mexico since May 13, also saw its momentum blunted and then doused by the rain. The fire, which burned 325,136 acres, is at 70 percent containment. But officials said only 180 people remain on the scene and a local team will monitor the scene.