BAER work begins on fires

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A handful of wildfires has charred nearly 100 square miles of dry, rugged terrain around New Mexico since the end of May.

The largest fire, the 39-square-mile Silver Fire, was still raging in the Gila National Forest on Tuesday, but teams of scientists have already started scouring scorched areas in an effort to assess the damage and prepare for the post-fire threats of erosion and flooding.

The teams are looking at the severity of the burns, damage to the soil and possible effects to streams, roads, wildlife habitat and private property.

Rain has already brought rocks, dirt and charred debris down from some of the mountainsides burned by the Tres Lagunas Fire north of Pecos.

“This is part of nature — fires are part of nature and rains are part of nature,” said Beth Mitchell, a specialist with the Burned Area Emergency Response team assigned to the fire. “The truth is as much as we all work together and do the very best we possibly can, there’s no way we can completely stop the effects of the rains in the fire areas.”

While the U.S. Forest Service spends much of its money on suppressing fires, dealing with the aftermath in recent years — when many states have had record-breaking fire seasons — has also become a big ticket item. Last year, the agency spent about $48 million on burned-area recovery efforts.

This year, the bill is expected to be the same given the forecast, said agency spokesman Larry Chambers.

Federal budget cuts have resulted in fewer dollars for firefighting efforts, but officials do not expect to cut corners when it comes to the BAER program given that it’s aimed at emergency situations, such as stabilizing hillsides or removing hazardous materials that are the result of a fire.

The Tres Lagunas Fire charred about 16 square miles after being sparked by a downed power line on May 30. Evacuations of more than 100 homes were ordered in the first few days of the fire and forest officials decided to close much of the area.

By Tuesday, crews had contained 90 percent of the blaze. However, forecasters were calling for critical fire weather Wednesday and crews remained on alert, said fire spokesman Mark Lujan.

As firefighters monitored the lines built around the Thompson Ridge Fire on the Valles Caldera National Preserve, scientists were starting what would be a few days of data collection. That information will help frame what actions the team takes to curb post-fire damage on the preserve.

The Thompson Ridge Fire, also sparked by a downed power line, burned about 37 square miles within the preserve’s boundaries.

The Wednesday morning update said, “There was no new perimeter growth yesterday as unburned fuels within the interior continued to smolder and burn. Today crews will continue mop up, patrol and rehab on all divisions of the fire.

An increase in winds, lower humidity and warmer temperatures may contribute to increased fire activity within the interior which may create smoke plumes.”

A BAER public meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Valles Caldera National Preserve Science and Education Center, located at 90 Villa Louis Martin Drive in Jemez Springs.

Another emergency response team was scheduled to arrive Tuesday to evaluate the area burned by the Silver Fire in the Gila forest.

Officials said dry conditions and wind helped the fire grow overnight. In addition, low humidity aided the flames as they moved into three canyons.

The fire was 5 percent contained by Tuesday afternoon.

Incident Commander Matt Reidy said he was pleased with the progress firefighters made with structure protection around the historic mining town of Kingston and the Royal John Mine.

Fire managers were also developing a plan for dealing with the lightning-sparked Jaroso Fire once it moves out of the Pecos Wilderness in northern New Mexico.