We know that we’re against the clock, we know we’re racing against monsoons — Kenneth Branch, assistant state conservationist
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
MORA – Weeks after New Mexico’s largest wildfire blazed through rural northern communities, scarred hillsides are dotted with trees covered in blistered black bark.
Small raindrops darken the ash-laden ground.
Deer roam among the charred trees and a few sprouting plants and grass.
Thin smoke plumes are visible in the distance.
The Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response, or BAER team, has released a map of soil burn severity for 190,000 acres of the Sapello River, Upper Mora River, Coyote Creek and Embudo Creek watersheds impacted by the fire.
About 57% of the acres surveyed showed moderate or high burn severity.
Some 43% are unburned or have low burn severity.
Kit MacDonald, a soil scientist with the team, said that moderate and high-severity burns can incinerate roots and destroy a “dynamic ecosystem” beneath the forest floor.
“When it burns hot, you’re going to have bare soil – absolutely bare soil,” he said.
That’s especially dangerous where tree cover was completely obliterated.
Healthy trees capture rain on needles and leaves, and gently release that precipitation to the forest floor.
“We’ve lost that entirely,” Macdonald said. “So, now, you’ve got raindrops that are falling the distance from the clouds all the way to the ground unobstructed. And you get what is called rain splash when the raindrop hits the ground, as it detaches soil and allows it to be carried away in the runoff.”
Fast-moving water on the eroded ground could carry soil, downed trees and boulders below the burn scars.
Private lands account for about 70% of this region’s surveys.
That’s a staggering statistic, even for seasoned fire experts, said BAER team leader Micah Kiesow.
“Each one of the fires does surprise me in one way or another,” he said. “I think this one is one of the first ones that I’ve worked on that has so much private property that’s involved. Usually … the majority is on Forest Service land.”
The team’s data is intended to help agencies and landowners quickly pinpoint fire impacts.
Local soil and water conservation districts are helping residents access federal funds to protect private land from post-fire erosion and flooding.
Kenneth Branch, assistant state conservationist for programs with NRCS, said that may include trees and debris that have plugged up irrigation ditches or drainages.
“We know that we’re against the clock, we know we’re racing against monsoons,” said Branch, who grew up in Mora.
The mitigation projects may use existing infrastructure or natural resources.
Crews may use such strategies as contour tree-felling to place burned trees along the hillsides. The trees would help control erosion and intercept fast runoff.
The NRCS team conducting on-site assessments to see if landowners are eligible for emergency assistance is a group of northern New Mexico residents.
“It hits a little closer to home for us,” he said.
The fast-approaching monsoon season could show just how much the fire has changed regional watersheds, said BAER hydrologist Alexander Makic.
“For these high-alpine locations where you lose a lot of that litter and a lot of that canopy, and what was naturally more absorbent, and now, all of a sudden, you’ve lost that, you just see a heightened influx of sediment that goes into the streamways,” Makic said.
Many northern New Mexico communities rely on streams and rivers for drinking water and irrigation.
“It’s going to probably be a little bit harsher on the water cleaning systems,” Makic said. “If it’s a large enough event that does end up coming, there could be damage to the infrastructure.”
The latest soil burn map follows the team’s data on impacts to the Gallinas and Tecolote Creek watersheds.
The BAER team may recommend seeding and mulching to help speed up the regrowth process, and mitigate erosion and flooding.
But it will likely be a long road to restoring the burned areas.
“It can be three to five years before you really start to see some growth that will actually contribute to soil stability and an ecological function of the soil,” Macdonald said.