Pecos area prepares for flooding

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The Associated Press

PECOS — Forecasters are calling for more thunderstorms to settle in over the burned mountainsides of New Mexico, prompting some communities to brace for flash flooding.

The chance of storms dumping more moisture on the areas left bare by a series of recent wildfires is better than 60 percent. This risk is highest today, according to the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

The threat is spread across hundreds of square miles that have been blackened by fire over the past three years. New Mexico had record wildfire seasons in 2011 and 2012 and just this year alone, about 290 square miles have been burned in the Santa Fe and Gila forests.

Officials say charred lands are more susceptible to sediment, dead trees and debris washing off into streams and rivers.

State police issued a warning Friday, saying the villages of Pecos and Villanueva could be affected by post-fire flooding.

“Please make yourself and families aware of these dangers,” Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez said. “Also take the proper precautions to create a plan of hasty exit if the threat presents itself and if it is safe to do so.”

In Pecos Canyon, residents have been stacking sandbags, but some flooding has already occurred. On Friday, debris deposited by the runoff blocked NM 63 — the only road running north from Pecos — and access to the Davis-Willow Campground.

Pamela Mathis, a spokeswoman with the recovery team assigned to the Tres Lagunas Fire, said people should think of flash flooding as a snowstorm and have on hand appropriate clothing and other provisions.

“You could get stuck on one side or the other, or even in it,” she said. “If you choose to go into it, you should be aware of the weather and take personal responsibility to be prepared.”

The Tres Lagunas Fire, sparked by a downed power line, charred about 16 square miles near Pecos, one of the state’s most popular fishing and camping spots. The area remains closed to everyone but residents.

Rainfall so far has left the Pecos River running black with debris.

The rainfall prompted state and federal land managers to lift fire restrictions and closure orders Friday for some areas around New Mexico.

Many of the restrictions prohibiting campfires, smoking and other open fires were imposed during the spring due to extreme fire danger that was prompted in part by three consecutive years of drought.

“Recent rains and the expected return of seasonal moisture across much of the state has lessened fire danger to the point that we feel the restrictions imposed earlier this year can be lifted,” State Forester Tony Delfin said Thursday.

Still, Delfin urged residents and visitors to be careful.

The State Forestry restrictions applied to all non-municipal, non-federal and non-tribal land across New Mexico’s 33 counties.

All of the state’s five national forests, the Bureau of Land Management and numerous cities and counties imposed their own restrictions this year in hopes of reducing the chance of a human-caused fire. That put many recreation spots off-limits.

A series of recent wildfires also forced closures on the Santa Fe National Forest. Areas in the upper reaches of Pecos Canyon will be closed indefinitely due to the aftermath of the Jaroso and Tres Lagunas fires, but forest officials announced Friday they would be lifting the closure order for the rest of the northern New Mexico forest and scaling back fire restrictions.

Ottaviano warned that areas around the burn scars will be susceptible to flooding for a few years. The recent rains have already brought sediment and charred debris down from burned mountainsides in the Pecos area.