Fire and Water: The Las Conchas Fire

Column by State Representative Jim Hall

On June 4 and 5, I attended a conference “Impacts and Lessons Learned from the Las Conchas Fire,” sponsored by New Mexico’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NM EPSCoR– 

NM EPSCoR is funded by the National Science Foundation, and this year their focus was to research the impacts of climate change on Northern New Mexico water resources.

The Las Conchas Fire broadened their focus to the environmental impacts of wildfire–with water and water quality as an important subtext. 

The Whitewater-Baldy Complex gave the meeting added urgency.

First, a very brief review of the Las Conchas fire: it started on June 26, 2011 when high winds toppled an aspen tree into a power line and sparks ignited the forest. 

During the first 14 hours, high winds moved the fire eastward and burned an acre of forest every 1.17 seconds. 

The fire then burned over 156,000 acres and was finally contained after 1,200 personnel from around the country had battled the blaze for five weeks. 

Then, to add insult to injury, summer monsoons brought flash floods and landslides to burn-scarred and nearby areas.

New Mexico First organized and facilitated the conference: see for a detailed agenda and a preliminary paper. 

About 100 people attended representing diverse organizations and interests. 

The conference started with a discussion of Las Conchas impacts on wildlife, plants, water quality, land use, and local economics. 

For example, suppression costs were over $48 million, and other costs are still unknown: these include expenses to reclaim and revitalize burned land, costs to mitigate flood damage; lost workdays and productivity; loss of Dixon’s Apple Orchard and the livelihoods of people who worked there; losses from reductions in recreation and tourism; land-use loss to ranchers or other private land owners; and enormous economic costs to Santa Clara Pueblo.  

Also there are the non-market values of lost cultural sites, lost habitat, lost recreational opportunities, and lost ecosystem services.

There were many interesting revelations for me — I’ll mention two. 

As part of EPSCoR’s research last year, they had placed many water monitoring devices in the Jemez. 

Researchers now have unique data: widespread pre and post fire information on water quality. The second revelation was the effect of heavily treed areas on water availability.  In heavily treed areas, snow collects in the trees and evaporates without reaching the ground. 

The difference between heavily and lightly treed areas on water reaching an aquifer may be as much as 10 to one — all the more reason to thin the forest.

NM First used facilitated meetings to create policy recommendations. 

There was general agreement on many issues, but disagreement — occasionally sharp — over others. 

For example, there was strong agreement on reducing the fuel load on forest land through removal of vegetation, and, eventually, using controlled burns as part of long-term maintenance of forest health. 

Another widely accepted recommendation was to map forest watersheds and track long term fire effects on water quality. 

The most contentious proposal was to increase local control of forest areas adjacent to population areas. 

The final report will be available soon and available to the public — I will keep you informed.

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