Threat to watershed deemed low

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Forest closures in effect

By Martin Salazar

A top state official assured Las Vegas residents this week that he and Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration recognize how critical the Gallinas Watershed is to Las Vegas and that steps are being taken to protect it.

“Protecting the watershed here is a top priority,” Lt. Gov. John Sanchez said at a community meeting held at Luna Community College’s Las Vegas campus on Tuesday evening.

“All is being done to address the watershed concerns.”

Santa Fe National Forest officials, meanwhile, mindful of the fire danger in the watershed, have enacted a full closure of the forest’s Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District, and a 20-person task force has been assigned to patrol the watershed and to snuff out any fires that might occur.

“We are going to full closure because of the drought and the possibility of something else happening,” Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Maria Garcia announced Tuesday.

The closures went into effect Wednesday morning. The rest of the Santa Fe National Forest is in Stage 2 restrictions. Fort Union National Monument also implemented Stage 2 fire restrictions Thursday. Lorenzo Vigil, a spokesman for the monument, said the action was taken to ensure public safety and the protection of park resources.

The Tres Lagunas Fire,  which was sparked last Thursday by a downed power line, is burning in steep, rugged terrain about 10 miles north of Pecos. Crews battling the blaze gained 24 percent containment on it as of Thursday morning, and they had been able to keep its growth to a minimum. The fire had burned 9,578 acres as of Thursday morning.

The Tres Lagunas Fire is burning about four miles west of the Gallinas Watershed, which provides about 90 percent of Las Vegas’ drinking water supply. But fire officials and the emergency manager for Las Vegas and San Miguel County have repeatedly said there is no imminent threat to the watershed, given how the fire has been burning and the fact that the Viveash burn scar stands between the watershed and the Tres Lagunas Fire. That is noteworthy because it means that there is less fuel between the watershed and where the fire is currently burning.

“I don’t believe there is a significant threat to the Gallinas Watershed,” incident commander John Pierson said Tuesday evening. But he noted that conditions could change.

Pierson said there are contingency plans in place in the event that the fire begins to move toward the watershed.

He said the top priority for firefighters is safety and preserving lives. After that, the priorities are keeping the fire out of the Gallinas and Santa Fe watersheds and protecting structures.

Dennis English, the Las Vegas/San Miguel County emergency manager, said Thursday that if anything, the threat to Gallinas Watershed from the Tres Lagunas fire has decreased even further since Tuesday evening. He added that crews were working Thursday on the Viveash burn scar to further minimize the risk.

Mayor Alfonso Ortiz said he’s confident that the Tres Lagunas fire won’t spread to the Gallinas Watershed. But he said he is concerned about another fire starting up in the watershed.

Joseph Julian, a district fire management officer with the Santa Fe National Forest, said that after the Calf Wildfire started on Saturday, he made the decision to beef up patrols in the watershed. The sole job of the 20-person task force he formed is to protect the watershed. The crew has two fire engines at its disposal.

Crews managed to jump on the Calf Fire quickly and snuff it out.

Rain Needed
At Tuesday evening’s meeting, Pierson told the crowd “We need rain badly.”

Pierson got his wish on Wednesday, with some rain falling in the area that was burning. The higher humidity and cloud cover helped in the effort to fight the blaze.

But fire officials were expecting an overall drying and warming trend to start today, with temperatures expected to be well above normal by Sunday.

Some of the people evacuated from their homes have been allowed back in. According to a report from the incident management team, the road block on Highway 63 moved further north in the Pecos canyon to the Windy Bridge Day Use area, which is in the vicinity of mile marker 15.5. People who reside south of Windy Bridge were allowed to return home. Areas north of Windy Bridge remained under evacuation. Officials also said that Forest Road 92, two miles north of the Bull Creek road, remained closed.

Fire officials were, however, preparing to allow Mora-San Miguel Electric Co-op and Century Link staff to be escorted into the fire area so that they could begin assessing damage to their lines and begin making repairs.