Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Hermits Peak Fire threatens Las Vegas’ main water supply

The Hermits Peak Fire, which started when a prescribed burn jumped its boundaries, burns between a farm in Sapello and Hermits Peak. About half the wildfire is burning in the watershed. (Eddie Moore/)

Copyright © 2022

LAS VEGAS, NM – Maria Gilvarry spends her mornings scanning maps of the Hermits Peak Fire and the Gallinas watershed northwest of Las Vegas.

The City of Las Vegas utilities director carefully looks for where the two areas overlap.

About half the wildfire is burning in the watershed – the city’s main water supply source.

“Ash that comes from the fire that ends up in the river could then end up in our water system, and it becomes untreatable,” Gilvarry said.

The fire, which began as a prescribed burn, could force the city to rely on its reservoirs for water this summer.

Las Vegas diverts water from the Gallinas River to reservoirs for temporary storage.

A treatment plant then disinfects the water, and a gravity-driven system distributes water to customers.

Las Vegas can store up to 42 million gallons of water in three off-river reservoirs: city-owned Bradner and Peterson, and the privately operated Storrie Lake.

If enough ash ends up in the river, the city would stop diverting water and rely on reservoir storage.

For how long, Gilvarry said, will depend on how much rain the area receives this summer and the results of water quality tests.

“Heavy rains could wash ash downriver rapidly,” she said, “and light rains might not even be too noticeable.”

The last time wildfire ash significantly affected the watershed, Las Vegas stayed off the river supply for about eight weeks.

The city, which has 13,000 residents, has enough stored water to supply residents for that amount of time.

“We would probably institute more stringent conservation to minimize water waste if we are limited to what we have in storage,” Gilvarry said.

Las Vegas could request state assistance or water supply from neighboring communities if the city needed to stop diverting for an extended period.

Bradner Reservoir has been undergoing repairs for several years and is not yet back online for residential supply.

But this week, helicopters dipped into Bradner for water to fight the fire.

Prescribed burn

The Hermits Peak Fire began on April 6 as a prescribed burn – a centuries-old practice of intentionally setting fires to thin forests and mimic natural fire cycles.

But when afternoon winds blew the fire outside of the project boundaries, crews declared the incident a wildfire.

The team called in additional crews for a full suppression attack.

Santa Fe National Forest officials have apologized for the fire.

Steve Romero, the Pecos/Las Vegas District ranger, noted the importance of the forest and watershed to the community.

“We take full responsibility, and with a heavy heart,” Romero said. “We are really sorry for what happened.”

Romero said that the April 6 controlled burn “was going well,” and said the forecast told the crew they had favorable conditions.

“But as often happens, whether it’s wildfire or prescribed burning, changes can occur unexpectedly,” he said.

Along with the apology, the district ranger pointed to prescribed burns and thinning as some of the best tools for healthier forests.

Forests, climate

Matthew Hurteau, a University of New Mexico biology professor and forest ecologist, said using prescribed fire is key for addressing decades of fuel buildup.

But the projects are not without risks.

Hurteau’s field work studies forest management and trees that thrive in post-fire landscapes.

“We tend to fixate on a single cause when it comes to fire, but really it’s a three-pronged cause to this,” he said.

Forests that once had natural fire cycles at least every few decades have been “fire suppressed” and have grown into densely forested areas.

Human-caused climate change is making ecosystems third and more flammable, and communities have been built into densely forested landscapes.

As the atmosphere becomes third, forest vegetation doesn’t store as much water.

“Then when we have weak winters with limited snowfall, the soil’s dry and dead wood is dry, and the whole forest becomes a lot more flammable,” Hurteau said.

The scientist pointed to the Big Hole Fire along the Rio Grande in Belen as a sign of a changing climate.

“That bosque should be super wet from snow right now, and it’s not,” Hurteau said.

Evacuate or stay?

A week after the start of the Hermits Peak Fire, Cyn Palmer was at an evacuation shelter set up in the gym of Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas.

Palmer, a retired manager, lives in a small wildlife residence between Rociada and Pendaries, north of Hermits Peak.

“I left Saturday (April 9),” she said. “Or maybe it was Sunday. The days are getting confused.”

Palmer is staying at the home of a friend in Mora. She is at the shelter not to seek help but to offer it.

The gym is filled with water bottles, stacks of canned foods and other necessities.

Not many people are staying overnight. But those displaced by the fire stop by to pick up things they need while living in the houses of friends or relatives, or in camper trailers.

“I’m extremely impressed with how this community has pulled together,” Palmer said. “People donate food. Restaurants bring hot food. There has been such an outpouring of people who want to help.

“It’s heartwarming that at a time when there is so much division in our country, we have neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends and strangers helping strangers.”

Palmer’s home is stucco with a metal roof.

When she evacuated, she managed to take a couple of treasured paintings off the wall, a few pieces of pottery she had created herself, some favorite items of clothing and important papers. A photographer and a ceramicist, she was forced to leave behind her photographs, most of her pottery and her books, which she considers lifelong friends.

She has seen her share of wildfires, having worked over the years as a wildlife manager for a number of state and federal agencies.

“But this is the first one in which I have been so impacted,” she said.

On Thursday morning, Gary Morton was watching the Hermits Peak Fire burn on a ridge just south of his house in Sapello, about 13 miles north of Las Vegas.

His house, parts of which are a log cabin built a hundred years ago, has been without power for a while.

“There’s a lot of inconvenience, but I’m not worried about the fire,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s close, within half a mile. But it’s on the other side of the highway.”

Morton is the resident ranch hand and caretaker for 300 acres in Sapello.

No cattle are grazing the property now, but there are five horses. Evacuation is mandatory for this area, but Morton said he found out you can’t be forced to leave.

“So I didn’t,” he said. “I sit up at night and watch the fire. There are a lot of resources here, trucks going down the road. I see four trucks sitting at the houses of neighbors. They are in protection mode.

“Today, I see men on foot and hear chainsaws running. They are actually afoot on that ridge and cutting on that stuff. The wind has laid down today, but it is supposed to be coming back this afternoon. It can blow up with the wind and get out of control again.”

Storrie Lake is part of the water supply for Las Vegas. The city can store up to 42 million gallons of water in three off-river reservoirs, including Storrie Lake. The Hermits Peak Fire could force the city to rely on its reservoirs for water this summer. (Eddie Moore/)

That’s why he doesn’t understand why the Forest Service ignited a prescribed burn. “A controlled burn out of control,” he said. “It has been one of the driest winters in recent memory. I don’t care what the weather reports say, I don’t think I’m going to drop a match. We have been having wind up here for two weeks. We have had timber blow down and all kinds of stuff.”

Palmer never worked for the Forest Service, but she is willing to give the agency the benefit of the doubt.

“There is a reason they do prescribed burns,” she said. “They are trying to manage the resources for the future. No one ever wants anyone to lose their home or lose their livestock. I don’t think this is the time to levy criticism. This is the time to pull together, to have each other’s back and support each other. When the fire is out will be the time to look at what could have been done differently.”

Palmer said we should not overlook what she considers the root cause of wildfires these days.

“I strongly feel that any discussion about the cause of this fire should also include serious discussion of climate change,” she said. “Because the truth is climate change has an enormous impact on the frequency, the severity and ferocity of the fires we are experiencing in New Mexico these days.”

Both Palmer and Morton are aware of the threat the Hermits Peak Fire poses to the Gallinas watershed.

“There is a concern for the integrity of the watershed,” Palmer said. “I have no doubt the people who are fighting this fire are taking that into consideration.”

In the meantime, city officials are working to keep the reservoirs full and free from ash.

The impact may be less severe if the fire doesn’t burn more of the watershed.

“We won’t know until the rains come,” Gilvarry said. “But if you get ash in a reservoir or lake, it could be years before that body of water is healthy again.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the .

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