After burning over 325,000 acres of Gila wilderness, the Black Fire is mostly out

Monsoons extinguished the Black Fire but brought flooding to the remote NM region

By: - July 27, 2022 4:00 am

Pine trees with needles turned orange by the fire stand in June in front of burnt spindly trees on the top of a ridge that faced the hottest part of the Black Fire. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

Southern New Mexico is finally getting some relief after months of firefighters beating back the second-largest blaze in the state.

The U.S. Forest Service must further survey the area before calling the fire 100% contained, said spokesperson Punky Moore.

As of Tuesday, July 26 at 11:30 a.m.

The Black Fire burned 325,136 acres.

It is 90% contained.

Monsoon season was instrumental in containing the fire, and it hasn’t consumed any more acreage, Moore said via email.

Tom Bird is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service who worked on the Black Fire. He said while there’s no doubt that the fire is out, the U.S. Forest Service waits to call it because the fire’s heat can remain in areas throughout the forest, threatening to ignite flames again and spread.

Heat along the perimeter of the fire can be dangerous and could cause flames to escape, Bird said. But Moore said fire lookouts along the edges in Signal Peak, Hillsboro and Black Mountain haven’t reported any heat in almost a month.

There’s a possibility that the fire might not be declared fully extinguished until it snows, said Acting Forest Supervisor Michael Martinez.

Waiting for snow to call the Black Fire is just “erroring on the side of caution,” Bird explained, since the snow would ensure that no heat is being held over into the next dry season.

“Most fires we will call out earlier than a snow,” he said. “But with a fire like this that’s so big, it’s just easy to miss something.”

The earliest snow should fall around mid- or late November, he forecasted, when the area has consistently low temperatures and winter storms are coming in. The heaviest snowfall will probably come in January.

“The meat and potato of snow season for the Gila is really December, January into February, and January looks like the sweet spot,” Bird said. “That’s where they get the most snow.”

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire is similar to the Black Fire in that it’s mostly out but officials are waiting to call it until they’re completely certain, Bird said. He also worked as an incident meteorologist for the northern N.M. fire that, as of July 26 at 3 p.m., torched 341,735 acres and is said to be 93% contained.

On the Black Fire, fire personnel are currently working on repair and minimizing the damage done to the forest, Moore said, which includes clearing out debris. The Burned Area Emergency Response team released their assessment of the land yesterday, recommending actions like planting seedlings and closing roads, trails and campsites that are vulnerable to flooding and debris-laden flows.

“The intent is to stabilize the area and post signs to warn the public about the potential dangers that are inherent within the fire area,” Moore wrote.

Rain and flooding

Burn scars like those left behind by the Black Fire make water and debris runoff more likely, heightening the risk of flooding. Some flash flooding has occurred around the Gila National Forest and continues to be a threat, Bird said.

There has been periodic flooding on the northeast side of the fire near Rasper Spear Ranch and by Diamond Bar Ranch, Moore wrote. She said to the east, there have been high flows along South Fork Palomas Creek near Ted Turner’s property.

There have also been floods to the west of the Black Range — mountains in the Gila — and around the Black Canyon and Rocky Canyon campgrounds, Bird said. But floods mostly washed into rural areas without structures or people living there, he said.

“Most of that area is pretty remote,” Bird said. “It’s all wilderness.”

Rainfall is more likely in mountainous areas, he said, and heavy rain could continue through September. This is the time of year this region gets about half of its annual precipitation.

“We don’t really see, in the near term, any chance that we’ll lose all this moisture and go back to a real dry-type scenario,” Bird said, “like you see here in the spring, in the fall.”

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.