Reduced to Ash

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Tres Lagunas blaze leaves massive cleanup effort for Pecos property owners

The fire boundary can be seen next to a fire line on Old’s ranch Friday.

The fire boundary can be seen next to a fire line on Old’s ranch Friday.

Firefighters continued to make headway Friday on both the Tres Lagunas Fire burn in the Pecos Canyon and the Thompson Ridge Fire in the Jemez Mountains. Both fires were started by downed power lines.

Tres Lagunas had burned more than 10,000 acres by Friday night and was 34 percent contained. The cost of the fire to date is $4.2 million.

The Thompson Ridge Fire was 10 percent contained and had scorched more than 14,000 acres by Friday evening, almost all of it in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The cost of fighting the fire to date also is estimated at $4.2 million.

A public meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday at the Sierra de los Pinos fire station for people evacuated due to the Thompson Ridge fire or affected by it. Gov. Susana Martinez is scheduled to attend.

Officials are asking people to limit driving on N.M. 4 between Jemez Springs and Los Alamos and on N.M. 126 through Cuba due to heavy fire traffic.

Meanwhile, people evacuated from their homes due to either fire can find a little free diversion at the state’s museums and historic sites. Fees have been waived for evacuees, according to the state Department of Cultural Affairs.

Crews continue work

Crews continue work

PECOS — Viveash Peak, east of Pecos Canyon, is a wasteland. Acres of skeletal black trees cling to the steep slope down into the drainage below. The ground, once green with grass, is layered thick with ash, still warm to the touch. The Tres Lagunas Fire roared up the drainage and over the peak a week ago. A whirling 40-mph wind whipped the blaze into a frenzy.

David Old, 57, stood in the middle of the devastation Friday. He was raised on this mountain. He’s only known it covered in pine, fir and aspen. His four children came here while growing up. For more than a decade, he’s made a living sustainably harvesting logs and milling them into custom wood flooring.

He can’t do anything about the fire. What he worries about now is the aftermath. He figures he has less than two years to harvest any of the burned logs or they’ll rot beyond use.

Most immediately, he’s worried what will happen if the rains come too soon and too hard. The drainage on his ranch north of the mesa now bears about 1,000 acres of burned trees. Even the trees that still show a little green are 90 percent dead, Old said. Wind will knock them over. A heavy rain will wash the debris, logs and ash down the drainage and into the Pecos River. The damage to downstream properties will only compound the fire damage.

“This restoration needs to get started now,” he said. “It needs to get started big and fast.”

But it will be an expensive project that he says he can’t afford to do alone.

Wasted effort

Tres Lagunas isn’t the first forest fire Old and his family have been through here. The Viveash Fire in 2000 scorched another section of the ranch. Tres Lagunas burned into the old scar. The Roybal Complex Fire in 2009 burned a little more.

All told, Old and his son, Shiloh, have helped fight eight fires on their own ranch or other ranches. With the right conditions, it doesn’t take much for sparks from a lightning strike, a campfire or a downed power line to be fanned into a major conflagration in these mountains.

The Olds obtained a couple of state grants and had been thinning the Viveash Mesa with the help of biologists and foresters to ensure it was done sustainably. They were hauling the logs to their Las Vegas, N.M., wood flooring plant.

David Old hoped the thinning project would mean forest fires would burn close to the ground, the way they burned historically when the forests were healthy and not overgrown.

But extreme dry conditions and high winds fanned the Tres Lagunas Fire into a fast-moving beast that blew right through the thinned area.

Old tries to be philosophical about the situation: “In Ecclesiastes it says, ‘But time and chance happen to us all.’ ”

“I feel like Job sitting out here in the ashes sometimes,” Old continued. “Can I receive the good from the hand of God and not the bad?”

Battling an inferno

Shiloh Old, 24, was at the ranch with a four-man crew cutting logs when they saw smoke rear up from Pecos Canyon on May 30. They went to the cabin and watched the smoke roil up thicker, headed toward Viveash Mesa. They spent the night. Shiloh began bulldozing and clearing a line around the cabin, other equipment and the old mill building where his dad first started the wood flooring business in 1996. The flames kept coming, up over the ridge.

Helicopters and planes dropped fire retardant slurry around the property to protect it.

Huie Ley, a volunteer firefighter and owner of the Tererro General Store told Shiloh it was time to go.

“I give him a lot of credit. He was up here working, telling us to leave when the fire was headed toward his property,” Old said of Ley.

They headed down the mountain for three hours, but as soon as the immediate danger seemed past, the Olds headed back up the mountain to keep building fire lines through the night.

The fire kept moving fast and into the next drainage, eventually leaping onto Cow Creek Ranch. Clouds, light rain and mild winds helped firefighters gain ground, slowing the fire’s march east before it reached the Gallinas River watershed.

By Friday, the Tres Lagunas Fire had burned across 16 square miles around the Pecos Canyon, 10 miles north of the village of Pecos. It was more than 30 percent contained, but evacuation orders remained for the northern part of the canyon.

Taking stock

“This is sad. This was a beautiful area. We had a little walking trail through here. All this was a no road area,” David Old said, sweeping his arm out to motion around Viveash Peak and the mesa. “Now we have trucks, bulldozers, all kinds of traffic.”

He’s not complaining, just noting the irony. What was once roadless is now cut by a bulldozer-wide road that served as a break to stop the fire and allowed firefighting crews to get into the rugged areas.

He’s grateful for the enduring efforts of firefighters — local and from other states — who worked tirelessly to keep the blaze from wiping out his family’s cabin and spreading across more of the ranch.

Old has spent the last couple of days working to get quick action on a USDA Emergency Watershed Protection Program grant. Staff at the Tierra y Montes Soil and Water Conservation District have been helping him. The program can provide up to 75 percent of the cost of mitigating hazards from fires and floods.

Old said it will take thousands upon thousands of dollars to rehabilitate the burned drainage before it erodes into the Pecos River. It needs to be seeded and watered to help new vegetation take hold quickly and to anchor the burned soil. Burned trees need to be carefully cut and laid down in a manner that prevents them from washing down. Small rock erosion dams need to be built.

His family can’t protect the drainage alone, he said. Outside his cabin, a periodic cracking breaks the air as burned trees fall.