Crews chip vegetation on NM State Highway 152. (Public domain photo via the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)
From a comparatively small blaze of just 150 acres to ravaging over 311,000 acres of southern New Mexico in just a month, the Black Fire is on the path to becoming the largest wildfire in the state.
As of Monday, June 13, at 4:30 p.m.
The Black Fire burned 311,692 acres.
It is 47% contained.
Dry weather across the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the next few days will likely speed the fire’s growth, though the approaching monsoon season, which typically starts mid-June, could provide relief in the following weeks.
Still, with the rains can come floods in burned regions, and responders are preparing for that, too.
Most uncontained areas remain along the southern edges of the Black Fire. It’s expected to expand in the Easy Canyon, the crest of the Black Range and Granite Mountain. It’s not expected to go beyond set fire lines, said Evan Burks, spokesperson for Southwest Area Incident Management Team 3, the crew in command until Tuesday morning.
Firefighters continue to make lines — breaks in the vegetation — with hand tools and bulldozers. Even existing roads, like Highway 152, can act as barriers when firefighters remove vegetation.
Change in command
The next team will relieve personnel who’ve been out there the last couple of weeks. Incoming firefighters were debriefed Sunday and have been shadowing people who’ve been on the field.
It’s standard for fire personnel to work for two weeks before they’re required to take mandatory days off to prevent extensive fatigue, Burks said.
“Everybody’s feeling really positive about where this fire’s at, feeling good about the work that’s been done,” Burks said. “And there’s a really solid plan in place moving forward that we’re going to hand off.”
The next crew will continue to build lines on the southeast side to block the spread, as well as contingency lines and backup plans, he said.
Firefighters are also taking stock of the Hillsboro area as a precautionary measure, getting information on structures there. Even if the Black Fire doesn’t get near there, the information will be passed on to the local community for future use in wildfire scenarios.
“It’s really been a pleasure for us to work here in these communities,” Burks said. “We’ve seen a lot of support from folks all around this fire.”
A red-flag weather warning was in effect in the fire zone until at least 8 p.m. on Monday to warn of increased fire danger due to heat and single-digit humidity levels. And strong winds were expected but expected to die down slightly on Tuesday.
Smoke has been visible from fuels burning on the interior of the fire scar. Air quality index levels remained mostly good.
Thunderstorms can actually help a wildfire depending on moisture, said Gary Zell, National Weather Service meteorologist working with the fire personnel.
There can be a chance of thunderstorms, “but if there’s not quite enough moisture there … all you get is strong winds that can come out of any direction,” he explained.
Such dry storms were a possibility Monday, and dry weather has been forecasted through Wednesday. But relief could come later in the week as moisture moves back into the area, along with chances for storms that include precipitation.
“Obviously, as we move into the monsoon season and that moisture starts coming in and doesn’t go away, then the storms still can produce those gusty outflow winds, but they’re also bringing rainfall to the fire area,” Zell said.
The National Weather Service predicts above-average precipitation in southern New Mexico in the coming weeks.
Estimates about how much, if any, rainfall the monsoons might pour onto the fire are difficult to make, Zell said, but rain tends to fall more at higher elevations, where much of the wildfire burns.
“Everything looks like it’s coming together,” Zell said.
With the monsoon season, Henry Provencio, district ranger for the Wilderness Ranger District, brought up the potential for floods.
“The fire is just one element of this,” he said. “Every time it rains, there could be a threat of flooding, and that can go on for a year or two and sometimes even longer.”
The emergency response team is working with federal and local county agencies to model and “identify those low-lying areas where people could be impacted,” Provencio said.
Wilderness and wildlife
Less than 10% of the fire damage is categorized as “high severity,” but, considering the scale, even 10% can amount to a lot of severely burned land, Provencio said. High-severity areas bare of vegetation could take hundreds of years to recover, but in regions categorized as having low or moderate damage, recovery can start almost immediately.
Animals in this territory are used to wildfire and will typically move away from it, said both Burks and Provencio.
“Wildlife have lived in this area with fire for a long, long time,” Burks said. “So they’re well-adapted.”
But their food sources and habitats are reshaped by the flames.
Elk may be temporarily inconvenienced food-wise if grass is burned, Provencio said, and ranchers can have difficulty if there isn’t grass for cows to eat. But that resource grows back fairly quickly, he said.
Other ecosystem harms take longer to recover from. If heavy ash gets in water drainages, or burned trees can’t provide shade to cool a creek, it could take decades to get the trout living there moving back upstream. Or spotted owls, who reside in canyons with tree coverage, may become vulnerable if the shade they relied on to regulate their body heat is gone.
“They’re able to escape the fire, but when they come back,” Provencio said, “they could starve or get preyed upon.”
The Gila is also home to a number of endangered species, including Gila trout. In a relocation mission last week, over 80 Gila trout were transported out of Diamond Creek to hatcheries where they can survive until they can be returned to the creeks.
“The impacts are grave, to say the least,” Provencio said.
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