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Brush clearing effort triggered devastating Dog Head Fire

Smoke billows as a tanker drops retardant near Tajique to fight the Dog Head Fire in this file photo from last week. A brush clearing project is being blamed for the start of the fire according to Forest Service officials on Friday. JOURNAL FILE

Smoke billows as a tanker drops retardant near Tajique to fight the Dog Head Fire in this file photo from last week. A brush clearing project is being blamed for the start of the fire according to Forest Service officials on Friday. JOURNAL FILE

CHILILI – U.S. Forest Service officials on Friday confirmed Journal reports that the cause of the Dog Head Fire in the Manzano Mountains was tied to a federally funded wildland brush and wood clearing effort designed to prevent exactly that kind of wildfire.

The preliminary findings indicate that the 18,000-acre blaze was started by a masticator, a forest thinning machine that grinds and shreds trees, dead wood, brush and other fuel as it moves across the ground.

The clearing effort – known as the Isleta Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project – is a joint effort of the Isleta Pueblo, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Chilili Land Grant.

On Friday evening, Isleta Pueblo Gov. E. Paul Torres issued a statement: “On behalf of the Pueblo of Isleta, I want to share our sadness and regret at the destruction brought on by the Dog Head fire. The people of Isleta Pueblo wish to express our heartfelt sympathy for those who lost homes or other property in the fire. I am just very thankful that there was no loss of life or serious injuries from the fire.”

The pueblo’s forestry crews, in cooperation with the Forest Service and the Chilili Land Grant, he said, “have worked for years to make our shared environment healthier and to reduce the risk of fire.”

Cibola National Forest Supervisor Elaine Kohrman told a crowd of about 100 people gathered in the Chilili gym that a forest thinning crew from Isleta, under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, was working with a masticator in the area on Tuesday, June 14, when the fire started.

The machine itself did not catch fire; rather, the material it was grinding and throwing onto the forest floor was the source of the blaze, she said.

The Isleta masticator operator called pueblo officials at 11:24 a.m. to report the fire, and pueblo officials notified the U.S. Forest Service Mountainair Ranger District. Minutes later, about 11:30 a.m., a lookout at Capilla Peak, southwest of the fire, saw smoke and reported it to the U.S. Forest Service dispatch office in Albuquerque.

“They immediately dispatched a battalion chief and two fire engines from Mountainair,” Kohrman said. “Firefighters were on the scene within an hour.”

They composed a Type 3 team of local resources. By early that Tuesday afternoon, it was apparent that a larger organization and more equipment was needed. An upgraded Type 2 team was requested and arrived early the next day, the Forest Service has previously said. The Type 2 team didn’t take over management of the fire until the next afternoon, the Forest Service has said. By the next day, Thursday, an even larger suppression effort was warranted, and a Type 1 team was eventually requested.

Kohrman acknowledged that she misspoke when early into the news conference she said the fire started about 8:30 a.m.

Asked how many people were on the thinning crew and what steps they may have taken to extinguish the fire before it grew too large, Forest Service investigator Robin Pogue said both of those questions were still under investigation.

He stressed that “this is not a criminal investigation, there was no criminal wrongdoing here.”

Kohrman said the thinning crew had fire tools with them as well a fire extinguisher aboard the masticator.

‘Winds took the fire’

Firefighters arriving at the scene quickly asked for additional resources.

“Retardant was heavily used throughout the afternoon and into the evening, and by the end of the day retardant was being used around the entire perimeter of the fire,” Kohrman said. The effort involved two large air tankers, six single-engine air tankers and over 100,000 gallons of retardant placed on the fire by the end of the first day.

“Unfortunately, what happened was firefighters were not able to get a complete line around the fire that evening and the winds took the fire, and we all saw the results the next day,” she said.

The fire raged across 28 square miles, destroyed 12 homes and forced the evacuation of numerous residents, along with their pets and animals. Evacuation centers were set up in Estancia, at the Torrance County Fairgrounds, and in Tijeras at Los Vecinos Community Center. As of Friday, the Dog Head Fire was 95 percent contained.

Retardant continued to be used throughout the days and nights that the blaze was being fought, which led to several community members attending the Friday news conference to ask if the compound presented a danger to vegetation or animals or drinking water.

Bea Day, the Forest Service’s incident commander during the Dog Head Fire, said that a number of studies have been published showing that it is not harmful to vegetation, and has some fertilizing compounds in it that may be beneficial.

The safety of retardant on drinking water was not answered definitively. “It’s not our area of expertise,” Kohrman said after the news conference. “What we’re telling people is the New Mexico Environment Department is offering free testing of wells and water supplies.”

Tests can be scheduled by calling 505-827-0572.

A number of people also had questions about forest restoration and efforts to mitigate runoff damage to the soil during the upcoming monsoon season.

Restoration of the burn area is expected to be less difficult than anticipated because the effect of the fire on the soil was not as damaging as first thought, said Cody Stropki, a watershed scientist with SWCA Environmental Consultants. The “seed banks,” those seeds still in the ground, are intact and capable of germinating into new growth in many areas, he said.

“The concern now is stabilizing the soil to keep it in place when the monsoons come,” he said. “We’re working with the local soil and conservation districts and the Natural Resource Conservation Service and designing projects to help stabilize hill slopes.”

These include the placement of straw wattles and log erosion barriers along contours to trap the sediment traveling down the slope, as well as the construction of sediment retention basins.

Some of these projects are expected to begin as early as next week, Stropki said.

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