Even before New Mexico’s unprecedented Whitewater-Baldy wildfire was declared 80% contained, attention had already shifted to next month’s monsoon season and the implications of heavy rains falling upon the now denuded landscape.
With no time for vegetation to reestablish itself on the rugged terrain of the Gila Forest by July, water, ash and debris are expected to run off the barren landscape more rapidly and in greater volume than usual, causing erosion, flooding and putting downstream homes and businesses at higher than normal risk.
Earlier this week, a team from the U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program completed a study of burned areas within the Gila National Forest, surveying the damage and assessing risks to life, property, infrastructure and the environment posed by current conditions.
In order to conduct its assessment, the BAER team included specialists in soil science, hydrology, wildlife and fisheries biology, engineering, forestry, archeology, recreation, and satellite mapping technology. Their recommendations for proactively reducing further damage are being reviewed by the Forest Service, with approval and funding expected by the end of this week.
Of particular concern is the fact that the Whitewater-Baldy wildfire burned several drainage basins within the Mogollon Mountain Range. Without vegetation to hold the soil in place, such basins are particularly prone to flooding, erosion, mud and debris flows, and landslides.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the National Incident Management Organization reported that the fire has consumed 296,726 acres (464 square miles) since it was ignited by lightning on May 16.
Sufficient progress in battling the blaze — now far and away the largest in state history — enabled the U.S. Forest Service to return management of the fire back to the Gila National Forest on Tuesday.
Last week, biologists worked to save a threatened species of trout from mountain streams that are expected to soon flood with ash, soil and charred debris. After being temporarily stunned by an electric shock, the fish were gathered, placed in tanks and flown by helicopter to a safe hatchery in northern New Mexico.