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Sandbags are piling up in Mora.
Crews are building temporary flood barriers west of Las Vegas, and San Miguel and Mora county officials are warning residents to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
Northern New Mexico communities are urgently preparing for the threat of post-fire floods this weekend as the state enters monsoon season.
Officials have been knocking on doors this week to warn residents of possible floods.
“We don’t want anyone to panic – we are not panicked,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a Friday news conference. “But we recognize the risk here, and the potential for flooding is high.”
The largest area facing flooding threats is in the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burn scar.
But limited communication in remote areas may complicate evacuations.
Some places are still burning.
As of Friday, the blaze was more than 340,000 acres and 72% contained.
It “just takes one storm” to cause flash floods over burned soil, said National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Overpeck.
“Burned ground … it acts like concrete,” he said. “Water hits it, and runs off.”
The National Weather Service forecast shows the Las Vegas area has a 20% chance of rain on Saturday and 50% chance on Sunday.
State forester Laura McCarthy said Mora County has received two semi-truck loads of collapsible flood barriers.
“There will be impacts to water and wastewater systems, roads and bridges, farms and fields, and outdoor recreation areas,” McCarthy said.
Federal agencies have sent thousands of sandbags to Mora and San Miguel counties.
The federal government is covering 100% of costs for the Emergency Watershed Program, which pays for flood prevention projects on private property.
Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna warned that floods and mudslides may block bridges and rural roads.
“Your ATVs, your tractors, your trailers, all of that stuff, try to protect it,” Serna said. “Take it up to higher ground. All that stuff could potentially be floating downstream with this flood.”
Santa Clara Pueblo’s forestry crew is helping protect Peterson Reservoir west of Las Vegas from ash and debris.
The reservoir stores some of the city’s water supply.
Foresters are laying burned trees across steep slopes to stabilize the burned soil.
Debris nets, erosion walls and temporary dams are aimed at slowing runoff and preventing ash and debris pollution in the reservoir.
The Gallinas Watershed work is funded by a $7 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contract with Idaho-based North Wind Site Services.
Lt. Col. Patrick Stevens, commander for the Army Corps Albuquerque District, said crews are using tools like gabion baskets to slow down water in Gallinas Canyon.
“These are basically metal baskets that are full of rock,” Stevens said. “You can stack them like Legos to make check dams.”
The state has opened three flood evacuation shelters in northern New Mexico.
Lujan Grisham said that fleeing floods can be a complicated process.
“In a flood with water coming in so many directions, it can take out our evacuation routes,” she said. “So we need folks to do that earlier, not later.”
The fire destroyed two of the three cellphone antennas on top of Mora Mountain.
A portable cellular tower was installed to restore communications in the village of Mora, and another tower should arrive this weekend.
David Dye, New Mexico Homeland Security and Emergency Management secretary, said even with the temporary fixes, routine communication methods for warning residents in flood zones are “not good enough.”
“Knowing that some people have never had cellphone coverage in that area, we’re also distributing weather radios,” Dye said.
New Mexico State Police and county sheriff’s deputies are going door to door, distributing flyers about how to prepare for flash floods with emergency kits and an evacuation plan.
Local agencies are hosting community meetings to complement the emergency alerts and social media posts.
Officials said this will likely not be the last time that residents need to leave flood zones this year.
The National Guard is prepared to use aircraft to evacuate people if they can’t get to higher ground once the water starts rising.
The U.S. Geological Survey is installing more rain gauges in the burn scar to notify downstream residents of impending floods.
The rainfall is a mixed bag for crews still battling the blaze.
Storms may help douse flames in the Pecos Wilderness, but heavy rainfall could cause other problems for firefighters navigating the burned landscape.
Fire operations section chief Jayson Coil, who is overseeing the blaze’s northern zone, warned residents not to drive through floodwaters and debris flows in burned areas.
“This is probably the most complex this incident has been since we got here,” Coil said.