‘What are we going to do?’: Ranchers look for help after massive 2022 wildfire in southern NM

Work to repair Black Fire burn and flooding damage moving slow, residents say

By: - January 5, 2023 5:05 am
A green cliffside on the right contrasts a snowy, more barren cliffside with a little bit of green growth on the right in the Gila National Forest. Snowy cliffs sit in the distance.

Green growth contrasts a snowy, more bare cliffside in the Gila National Forest on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Ranchers in the Gila National Forest thought the Black Fire would cause the worst of their damage. Then flooding tore apart the land, leaving a burn scar that has the possibility of kindling disasters and danger for years to come.

The personal damage is becoming more evident as some families with generations of experience ranching in the area are unable to afford to fix the destruction, due to high costs and unreliable emergency funding from the state and federal government.

“What used to be mountainsides full of trees are now great, big, deep gullies coming off those mountainsides, and boulders (are) in the creeks and across the road,” Laura Schneberger said. “The roads are now the creeks. The creeks are 8 feet deeper. It’s just unbelievable.”

Schneberger’s family has owned Rasper Spear Ranch for five generations, and she watched over time as the disasters changed the beautiful landscape into something that’s now unrecognizable since the Black Fire scorched over 325,000 acres last summer. It was the second-largest wildfire in state history and burned during the same months as the first, the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon blaze in northern New Mexico.

She said the flooding did much more destruction than the fire and will keep being an issue for at least two years, until burnt vegetation grows back. “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined it doing what it did,” she said.

Laura Schneberger stands near burnt trees in the Gila National Forest, holding up a device near hear ear with one hand and a cross-like figure out in the other to listen for animals in the forest.
Laura Schneberger listens for animals in the forest in July 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Her husband Matt Schneberger said he thinks there’s a two-month window to clean up debris before spring comes and other work needs to get done.

He said he wakes up at 2:30 a.m. every morning, thinks about everything he has to do and knows this isn’t over, even if the imminent threat has subsided.

Rasper Spear Ranch has been around since 1886, he said. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like this.”

His wife recounted an instance when their backyard was being flooded. She woke up in the middle of the night because of the roaring rush of water, and watched the water come up to the kids’ trampoline. But there was nothing she could do. There wasn’t even a road to leave on, she said.

“You wake up and you just start listening to it, and you just think, ‘What’s the point?’” she said. “Watching the fields get covered in just tons and tons of gravel is really demoralizing because we built all that.”

The floods wiped out their driveway, she said, which took $17,000 to repair. Laura and Matt are still trying to fix damage just to get in and out of their property “so that we can function at all on the most basic level,” she said.

Damage on the Schnebergers’ property would cost more to fix than they can afford alone.

The rural area the fire hit isn’t densely populated, but the destruction severely affected ranchers who have been living and working in the forest for centuries. The Schnebergers’ cattle business is taking a hit.

A lot of the fences that keep their cattle contained burned up or got washed away, too. While the Schenbergers try to fix up the barriers — Matt said it would cost around $300,000 to repair all of the fences — their cows are wandering around everywhere, not contained to the pastures they should be.

Cows sit on freshly growing green grass in the Gila.
The Schnebergers’ cows have been wandering around since burnt fences aren’t keeping them in. Pictured in July 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Local officials are working on something that could potentially be a solution for the loss of physical fences.

New Mexico State University and the Sierra County Extension Office are working on a virtual fencing project. GPS collars would keep livestock within certain areas instead of physical fences. There will be a study to see if the project will work in the rougher terrain, according to federal forest services officials. 

However, there are only 300 collars available for the program, and it wouldn’t start for a couple of months. Officials said two ranches want to try out the program, though the Schnebergers’ said they weren’t offered a spot.

Laura said she doesn’t even have reception for a cell phone, much less a virtual fencing collar. And, she added, she doesn’t even know where all of her cows are. Matt said first the cows would have to be corralled together with physical fences before they could even put collars on them for virtual fencing. 

A better solution right now would be to get money, materials or replaced fences altogether. Laura said they need physical fences for their grazing system anyway, which is rotational.

“We had fences and we owned them, and now we want them replaced,” she said.

Between fresh green grass and a dirt trail, burnt fencing materials lie at the edge of a slanted gate along with burned-up logs.
Burned-up fencing materials are pushed to the side near charred logs and a slanted gate. Pictured in the Gila in July 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Once the fences are restored, future floods off the burn scar could just wipe them out again and again. But they’ve got to repair them now nonetheless to get work done.

“If it rains and floods like it did this year, we’re gonna have to rebuild every year ‘till it stops,” Laura Schneberger said.

All of these issues are delaying ranching work that should’ve been done by now, like marketing cattle or shipping out products. Schneberger said she and her husband have lost revenue of about $45,000, so they’ve been forced to sell some of their equipment to help pay their bills now.

She described roads that are torn apart but aren’t getting enough state or federal attention anymore because it’s not constantly flooding. “They need to rebuild the entire road system,” Schneberger said.

She recounted numerous times people got stuck trying to drive through the forest over the past six months.

Who can help?

David Lienemann is the spokesperson for the N.M. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He said there are federal resources available for private landowners.

He said the state emergency office gave Sierra and Grant Counties a fact sheet that the counties could give out. It lists out aid that local residents can apply to — contact information for state and federal offices, and what the entities can help with, from livestock assistance to housing financial aid. Schneberger said she never got that information.

And she said she’s been struggling with getting state and federal agencies to communicate in a timely manner. Most recently, she said, the Small Business Administration told her it doesn’t fund agricultural loans in disaster areas. She said that answer came four months after she filed for a loan.

Up north, victims of the state’s largest blaze are getting billions of dollars from Congress. The federal government took responsibility for starting the burns that became the out-of-control Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and followed through with money to begin repairs.  

The Black Fire’s cause is still uncertain. Currently, it is being investigated as a human-caused fire. The circumstances around how the fire started are unclear at this time.

Barren trees stand on a snowy cliffside in the Gila National Forest.
Barren trees stand on a snowy cliffside in the Gila National Forest on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Ranchers who have to move their cattle to different pastures at different times are receiving more flexibility from Forest Service officials that enforce the migration. Kaye Diamond and her husband own Beaverhead Ranch near the mid-eastern area of the Gila. She said the Black Range Ranger District has been understanding about how burned-up fences and other damages are limiting normal operations. 

Black Range personnel have also been purchasing and distributing fencing material to ranchers. Five ranches got materials in July 2022, said Forest Service spokesperson Maribeth Pecotte.

Pecotte said the Forest Service is trying to get more materials, which will eventually be dispersed via helicopter in areas without roads. A forestry crew is currently cutting down trees that could fall on fences in burned areas, she said, and then personnel will start reconstructing fences damaged by the fire.

Schneberger said crews should’ve been removing dead trees months ago to prevent erosion. Now, she observes massive erosion damage. Still, she said, “we’re grateful to have anything at this point.”

Diamond said she’s just now starting to process everything that’s happened. Recovery will take years, she said.

“Even though it’s not flooding anymore, it’s still in your mind nearly all the time,” she said. “What are we going to do? What’s going to happen?”

Her husband Jack Diamond said the Forest Service is trying to help, but it’ll take time.

“There’s just a ton of damage,” he said. “And hopefully, they’ll help fix it. And we will, as well.”

Lienemann said avenues of aid from the state are limited due to the anti-donation clause.

However, New Mexicans voted in November to expand the use of state dollars for essential services, especially in rural areas. Lienemann said that applies to basic infrastructure like internet and water, but didn’t say how that could change disaster victims getting state dollars.

Schneberger said she’s still in survival mode and just needs more help. “We’ve had eight months of this now, and we just don’t see anything happening.”

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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.