USA–– A Lincoln County commissioner estimated the cost of the Little Bear Fire and the inferno’s aftermath at more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
“And the reason I say that, we’ve lost property, we’ve lost trees, we’ve lost land, we’ve lost a dam, a lake that was used for a water supply for Alamogordo and Holloman (Air Force Base), we’ve lost tourist dollars, we’ve lost businesses, and we still don’t know – we have not had a major rain up in the highlands this year,” Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Doth told the state Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee Monday. “We’ve had some quarter and half-inch, three quarters-inch and even been up to an inch of rain. But typically in a monsoon season we’ll experience a three and four-inch rain in those highlands. And we still haven’t received that.”
The concern is a fast and heavy downpour in the mountain heights could cause flooding and ash/debris flows from the burn scare of the Little Bear Fire.
In telling the committee, which was meeting in Ruidoso, that Lincoln County could use some financial help, Doth said it is easier to prevent catastrophes like the Little Bear Fire than to pay for the aftermath. He said the potential for disastrous flooding is not over.
Lincoln County Commissioner Jackie Powell agreed with Doth, noting that flooding so far has been minimal.
“This won’t be just this year,” Powell said of the potential for silt and ash to runoff in flood waters. “It will be three, five, 10 years out. Ton after ton after ton after ton.”
She also said acequias along waterways were impacted by the silt runoff this summer. Powell also told the committee that funding for emergency response training could be used.
“Dave Warnack (the Lincoln National Forest’s Smokey Bear District Ranger), I stand beside him at anytime,” Powell said. “He has to abide by policies just like the military. It’s policies that need to be changed. We got to get the locals, that we make the decisions and the Forest Service follows what we do.”
Powell said there must be a preponderance of local input in national forest planning and management.
“It’s got to be from the local level. All these WildEarth Guardians and everything that inserted all these policies all the years, it doesn’t work. I can prove it. Let’s change it.”
The government attorney for Otero County and the village of Ruidoso, Dan Bryant, lost his home in the Little Bear Fire. He said the Lincoln National Forest will soon begin to amend its forest management plan.
“Bureaucracies do not move quickly,” Bryant told the legislators. “We’ve been talking to the Lincoln National Forest about fire dangers in excess of 20 years.”
He urged the state to be at the table from the onset as the national forest begins to look at its management approach.
“In my career, the state of New Mexico has never sat at that table, not on the Lincoln National Forest,” Bryant said. “We need representative on the ID (Interdisciplinary) Team. We need the state of New Mexico, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the state Game (and Fish) Department, the state Forestry (Division), to insist on being involved in that and they need to let local representatives who live and work in the Lincoln National Forest participate on that ID Team, identify the options, and help rewrite the plan. It is one thing to have a completely hands-off wilderness when it is 75 miles from the nearest inhabited ranch. But it is another thing when it’s only seven linear miles from my house.”
The damage done
The Little Bear Fire started on the White Mountain Wilderness within the national forest’s Smokey Bear Ranger District on June 4. Four days later it began its race to the east and north, consuming more than 44,000 acres and destroying nearly 300 buildings, the vast majority homes.
While the flames and fire destruction sparred the village of Ruidoso, Debi Lee, the municipal manager, told the committee there have been “pretty tough times” for the village.
“Even though the fire was actually contained in the county, it burned a significant part of our watershed,” Lee said. “We rely on both surface water and ground water. The village’s water system consists of three separate surface areas – Alto Reservoir, Eagle Creek wells, which primarily service about 65 to 70 percent of our supply. Grindstone Canyon Reservoir, which is about 25 to 30 percent of the supply. And then Cherokee (well), which is about 5 to 10.”
The village is moving to dramatically increase groundwater use because of issues with surface waters.
“Luckily we have the ability to do that,” Lee said. “However, it’s going to take some time and a considerable amount of money.”
The co-chair of the Water and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Phil Greigo, D-San Jose, said the committee was there to learn how the state can help with the recovery from the Little Bear Fire. The cost so far
Lincoln County Manager Nita Taylor said so far $1.4 million has been spent for mitigation work after the fire by the county, village of Ruidoso and city of Alamogordo, which owns Bonito Lake. The lake was severely impacted by the conflagration and the post fire silt runoff.
“The city of Alamogordo though has incurred almost $600,000 more than they are spending just to take care of the lake,” Taylor said for huge pumps for flood mitigation.
“That lake right now has silt greater than 40 feet deep. On top of that 40 feet is about 2.5 to 4 feet of water.”
Committee member and New Mexico Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said she was in the Ruidoso area when the Little Bear Fire was first ignited by a lightning strike.
“What we saw was unbelievable,” she said of June 8. “I’m not throwing any stones at you Mr. Warnack (Dave Warnack, Smoke Bear District Ranger), I know that you’re just doing your job. But thank you U.S. Forest Service for causing this much chaos and this much destruction and mess peoples’ lives because that’s just what they’ve done.”
Ezzell alluded to policies pushed by the WildEarth Guardians, formerly called the Forest Guardians.
“Where the heck were the Forest Guardians when the fire was burning? This group of people (village of Ruidoso and Lincoln County officials) right up here fell into line and got organized to help other people fleeing from the fire and also try to protect what was here, no thanks to the United States Forest Service.”
Spence Ezzell said had there been good forest management in place, the Ruidoso area could have been spared the destruction.
Warnack, who has repeatedly defended the decisions made during the days before the Little Bear Fire, said the Smokey Bear Ranger District has done a lot of forest thinning over the years.
“We do live in a Ponderosa pine forest and Ponderosa pine forests do burn,” Warnack said. “I’d also like to let you (Spence Ezzell) know that over the past 10 years, on the Smokey Bear Ranger District, as well as on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, and on private lands, there has been tens of thousands of acres with thinning or prescribed burns around this community.”
Warnack told Griego that he would set up a meeting to detail the fire mitigation work of the past 10 year.
Griego questioned where litigation with environmental groups has gone.
“We’re being told that if you thin the forest you displace the animals who live in the forest, that’s the (Mexican) spotted owl,” Greigo said of a strategy to limit thinning.
Spence Ezzell said she has a problem with special interest groups such as the WildEarth Guardians.
“(They’re) filing injunctions to stop everything that’s going on. And our attorney general lets them get away with it. And a lot of that money that goes to these special interest groups is paid for by the state,” Ezzell claimed.