MORA – Sam Aragon’s house just north of Mora has been in his family since the 1850s. But amid the flooding that followed the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire last year, his wife, Elisa, told him she couldn’t sleep there.
The retired couple’s house sits a few yards away from an arroyo, which had never been a problem until last year, when the water coming off the mountains roared through the arroyo because the downed and charred forest did little to slow it down.
Their neighbors up the mountain would call during the rains last summer with warnings. “There’s a 12-foot wave coming down to your place,” Sam said one neighbor told him on a call just 20 minutes before the water made it down to them.
“Then you can hear it, and when it comes, it comes rumbling and bringing rocks and debris,” he said, adding that the floodwaters swept down his neighbor’s truck nearly to the end of the road and several 55-gallon drums to their property.
And with land so bare on the mountains around them, it could be years before there is enough vegetation to slow the water and keep it from doing further damage.
“They say this year’s flooding is going to be worse,” Elisa said, as a government-issued weather radio chirped from a corner of her dining room.
The fire burned from April until August, and flooding started with the summer monsoon season. Many suffered losses from the fire, but for some, like the Aragon family, the damage caused by flooding was worse.
The Aragons still have sandbags around their house to try to prevent the water from flowing in; water in the arroyo can now come right up to the walls during a normal rainstorm. The couple stays in Sam’s son’s RV when it rains since it is situated a little farther from the arroyo, but still on their land.
At one point, water in the arroyo pushed right through their garage. Elisa said she told Sam she thought they should clear it beforehand. “But he said, ‘It’s not coming through here. There’s no way.’ He’s lived here for 80 years, and he never saw anything like this,” she said.
Now, their garage is filled with silt that has trapped a broad collection of objects, from wine-making equipment to an antique stove. Sam was able to pull out two saddles that now hang from a beam in the middle of the garage.
Preparing for the floods
The water also flows down the road, past their home, located about seven miles north of Mora. The road used to be level with the land on either side of it; now, it sits about four feet lower.
Elisa and Sam have a neighbor who comes through with a bulldozer to clear it periodically, but it’s still a rough ride.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill into law in February to make $100 million available to communities dealing with the fallout of the fire for public works repairs, and this road, County Road A023, is slated to benefit from it.
Mora County Road and Solid Waste Department Superintendent John Romero said the money will go toward bringing the road more or less back up to the condition it was before the fire and flood. But they’ll have to wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to approve improvements beyond that, including any that would prevent damage from floods down the road. While the road serves about seven houses, damage like this can be found across the area, causing destruction and preventing easy access for many who live here.
“When it comes with force, there is no stopping it,” Romero said of the floodwater. “So it’s probably going to happen again.”
In the meantime, Romero drives around Mora County every day, making what repairs he can on his own, with a chainsaw or with a small team so people can still get to their homes, and school buses and emergency vehicles can reach them.
Kenneth Branch, assistant state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said he and his colleagues are looking at the snowpack in the area to get an idea of what flooding could be like this summer.
“If it’s anything like last year, we are expecting there to be some flooding, especially due to the runoff,” he said.
He said the conservation service is conducting a seeding and mulching project to restore vegetation that would slow the water down as it comes off the mountains.
“The seed mix we’re using has an annual that comes up fast, and then we have perennial grasses,” he said. “They’re all native to the area.”
He said this work primarily needs to happen on private lands to protect homes and the roads that lead to them. At the same time, he said it’s hard to convince landowners in the wake of a disaster caused by the government to bring government workers onto their land to do the work.
“We’re hoping that this spring is different,” Branch said, adding that he hopes recent legislation passed by the federal and state governments will change people’s minds. “We’re hoping they’ll step forward and say, ‘At first, I didn’t feel comfortable, but now I do.'”
The agency also is putting up flood barriers, including baskets filled with rocks and gravel, to protect homes.
Promises of help
Elisa Aragon said a number of organizations and government agencies, like FEMA, have been in touch since the flood last June.
“We haven’t had any assistance to date, but we’ve had a lot of people come by and tell us they were going to help us,” she said.
She and her husband have since hired lawyers to help them navigate the process of assessing damage and applying for support, saying they’re concerned they’ll be leaving money on the table otherwise.
Editor’s Note: Three families, three diverse stories. Nearly a year after the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire grew out of control, the Journal spoke with three families who are still reeling from its effects. Read the full series: