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Two women are dead in San Miguel County and a man is missing after flash floods raged in and near burn scars from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday afternoon offered condolences to the victims’ families and asked President Biden for more federal assistance to address post-fire flooding.
Heavy rains flooded Tecolote Creek west of Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon.
A San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office news release said the agency first received a report of flooding in the Tecolote Canyon subdivision at 2:40 p.m. Thursday.
Responders found an empty capsized vehicle in the creek channel along County Road A163.
A search team found two dead women in different locations in the creek channel. The Sheriff’s Office has not released the identities of the victims.
The office said Friday evening that they were working with several law enforcement groups and search dogs to look for an adult male from the vehicle. National Guard members were also searching the area surrounding the creek on Friday.
Lujan Grisham said she is “deeply saddened by the tragic deaths.”
“For a community that has already been through so much this year, this loss is another heartbreaking blow,” the governor said in a statement. “I want to express my most sincere condolences to their loved ones. As we await news on a third missing person in the flooding area, my thoughts are also with their family and the entire community. I am deeply grateful to the law enforcement officers and National Guard members who responded to the area and are assisting in the search.”
Severely burned soil and trees repel water and can cause flash floods even with minimal rainfall.
Some areas west of Las Vegas suffered the most severe burns from the fire, and are at the greatest risk of flooding and debris flows.
Harold Garcia, a San Miguel County commissioner, said county residents should “not let their guard down” as the post-fire floods threaten northern New Mexico.
“We’re working with as many agencies as we possibly can, but the burn scar is so big that it’s hard to work on the entire area,” he said.
The National Weather Service this week has issued flash flood watches and warnings for several areas of the burn scar.
Las Vegas resident Edward Dominguez, 60, lost much of his family’s 300-year-old ranch just south of Camp Blue Haven to the fire.
The blaze burned down the small chapel that his mother built and where he prayed as a child.
“Then the floods came, and whatever was standing there is for sure gone now,” he said.
The National Guard and local law enforcement searched Dominguez’s property on Friday for the third potential flood victim.
He waded through thick mud, and found several lawnmowers and piles of burned trees that had washed onto his land.
“I’ve tried to get assistance from FEMA, but, since that ranch wasn’t my primary residence, they couldn’t help,” Dominguez said.
Gov. Lujan Grisham on Friday repeated a request to President Biden and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to include flooding impacts in the government’s disaster declaration for wildfires in the state.
“Even with … post-fire mitigation efforts to protect critical infrastructure, regular maintenance of those temporary protective measures is the costly responsibility of local jurisdictions,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a letter.
The governor said county and state agencies, and volunteer groups are operating at mass capacity.
The state needs more resources to deal with the fires and floods.
Lujan Grisham also asked the federal government to extend the disaster declaration period and reimburse 100% of the mitigation costs.
“In sum, the communities in impacted areas have been unable to recover from the initial impact of the largest wildfire in New Mexico history,” she said. “Now, these same communities are threatened by worsening monsoon rains with the potential to cause even more catastrophic damages.”
The Southwest Coordination Center estimates the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which was caused by two U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns, has destroyed more than 900 structures. Firefighting costs have exceeded $284 million.
President Biden announced in a June visit to New Mexico that the federal government would fully reimburse costs for emergency protective work and debris removal.
But, in the meantime, local governments are using their operating budgets for post-fire costs.
“There’s no check that’s been written to San Miguel County,” Garcia said. “We really don’t know how long that will take.”
For such northern New Mexico residents as Dominguez, the flooding has added to the collective anger over the fire damage.
“It would mean so much to have someone say to us, ‘We understand that you’ve lost everything, and we’re going to help,’ ” he said. “This land has been in our family for generations. We can’t get that back.”