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Once the smoke clears

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

After weeks of work, fire crews have almost completely contained the Medio Fire, which has burned more than 4,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest.

Smoke billows from the Medio Fire burning south of Cundiyo on Tuesday, August 18. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But as firefighters slowly withdraw from the area, a new set of workers will descend to assess the damage and attempt to prevent any future catastrophe.

The process is called Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER), and involves teams of soil and water scientists analyzing the damage left in the wake of a large wildfire.

Andy Casillas, a regional soil scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, said the aim of the BAER team is to protect local human and natural life from any future complications from the fire, with flooding being the primary concern.

Fires can create a hydrophobic layer in the soil that does not absorb large amounts of water, Casillas said. During a rainstorm, this means water can run off in large quantities, carrying significant amounts of charred debris with it.

“You have tremendous runoff that can push down debris,” said Lynn Bjorklund, a local resource adviser for the National Forest.

The Medio Fire continued to burn in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe on August 19. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The BAER process requires a large amount of analysis of the burned area, including the process of deciding what needs to be fixed first and what can be put on hold.

“We’re looking at what is critical,” Casillas said. “Everything is still an emergency, but what can wait?”

That analysis is also being impacted by several outside factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the unusual timing of the Medio Fire.

In an effort to maintain social distancing, crews are relying more on satellite imagery and pictures taken with drones to figure out just how burnt the soil is. Casillas said satellites will create a “burned area reflective classification” map of the fire.

“It’s a comparison between the central imagery of the area before the fire versus how much it’s changed post-fire,” he said.

More than 4,000 acres of Santa Fe National Forest has been burned by the Medio Fire. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The virus also means some aspects of the BAER project will be put on hold until 2021, when the severity of the pandemic has hopefully lessened. That includes removing weeds that can proliferate in the absence of plant life to compete with, as well as repairing trails destroyed in the fire.

“Just have some patience in knowing that it’s just not safe yet,” Bjorklund said of the trails. “Once we get through the life and property portion, then, down the road, we’ll be looking at other things that are important.”

Casillas said the current monsoon season, while unusually dry, can affect a satellite’s ability to take pictures when there’s cloud coverage.

He also said waiting a year to finish a BAER operation happens in other parts of the country, but not typically in the Southwest.

“The amount of field work has decreased than what we would do in a normal year,” he said.

Such operations are not exclusive to New Mexico at the moment. Wildfires have been proliferating unseasonably across several western states, namely California and Oregon, leading to the loss of numerous homes and buildings.

Bjorklund said it’s hard to say if there will be another fire in the region, but that the Medio Fire was surprising on its own.

“Normally, at this time of the year, the chances of a big wildfire are low,” she said. “But here we have something that defied the odds.”

The Forest Service will soon release a complete analysis of the area burnt in the Medio Fire, which will include the impact on animals, plant life and local watersheds.

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