Hermits Peak Fire Threatens Las Vegas’ Main Water Source

The Hermits Peak fire, which started when a prescribed burn exceeded its limits, is burning between a farm in Sapello and Hermits Peak. About half of wildfires burn in the watershed. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

LAS VEGAS, New Mexico — Maria Gilvarry spends her mornings scanning maps of the Hermits Peak Fire and the Gallinas Watershed northwest of Las Vegas.

The City of Las Vegas Director of Public Utilities is carefully researching where the two areas overlap.

About half of the fires are burning in the watershed – the city’s main water supply.

“The ash that comes from the fire that ends up in the river could then end up in our water system, and it becomes incurable,” Gilvarry said.

The blaze, which started with a prescribed burn, could force the city to rely on its water reservoirs this summer.

Las Vegas diverts water from the Gallinas River to reservoirs for temporary storage.

A treatment plant then disinfects the water and a gravity system distributes the water to customers.

Las Vegas can store up to 42 million gallons of water in three off-river reservoirs: city-owned Bradner and Peterson and privately operated Lake Storrie.

If enough ash ends up in the river, the city will stop diverting water and rely on tank storage.

For how long, Gilvarry said, will depend on how much rain the region receives this summer and the results of water quality tests.

“Heavy rains might quickly wash the ashes downstream,” she said, “and light rains might not even be too noticeable.”

The last time ash from a wildfire significantly affected the watershed, Las Vegas remained out of the river’s supply for about eight weeks.

The city, which has a population of 13,000, has enough stored water to supply residents during this time.

“We would probably institute stricter conservation to minimize water waste if we were limiting ourselves to what we have in stock,” Gilvarry said.

Las Vegas could seek help from the state or water supplies from nearby communities if the city were to stop diverting for an extended period.

The Bradner tank has been under repair for several years and is not yet online for residential supply.

But this week helicopters dove into Bradner to get water to fight the blaze.

Prescribed burning

The Hermits Peak Fire began on April 6 in the form of a prescribed burn – an age-old practice of intentionally starting fires in thin forests and mimicking natural fire cycles.

But when afternoon winds blew the fire outside the project boundary, crews declared the incident a wildfire.

The team called in additional crews for a full suppression attack.

Santa Fe National Forest officials have apologized for the fire.

Pecos/Las Vegas District Ranger Steve Romero emphasized the importance of the forest and the watershed to the community.

“We take full responsibility and with a heavy heart,” Romero said. “We are truly sorry for what happened.”

Romero said the April 6 controlled burn was “going well” and said the forecast told the crew that conditions were favorable.

“But as often happens, whether it’s a wildfire or a prescribed burn, changes can happen unexpectedly,” he said.

Along with the apology, the district ranger said prescribed burns and thinning were among the best tools for healthier forests.

Forests, climate

Matthew Hurteau, a University of New Mexico biology professor and forest ecologist, said the use of prescribed fire is key to dealing with decades of fuel accumulation.

But the projects are not without risks.

Hurteau’s fieldwork studies forest management and the trees that thrive in landscapes after fire.

“We tend to focus on one cause when it comes to fire, but really it’s a three-pronged cause,” he said.

Forests that once had natural fire cycles at least every few decades were “fired out” and became densely forested areas.

Human-caused climate change is making ecosystems drier and more flammable, and communities have been built in densely forested landscapes.

As the atmosphere becomes drier, forest vegetation stores less water.

“Then when we have weak winters with limited snowfall, the dry, dead wood on the ground is dry, and the whole forest becomes much more flammable,” Hurteau said.

The scientist pointed to the Big Hole Fire along the Rio Grande at Belen as a sign of climate change.

“This bosque should be super wet with snow right now, and it’s not,” Hurteau said.

Evacuate or stay?

A week after the Hermits Peak Fire began, Cyn Palmer was in an evacuation shelter set up in the gymnasium at Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas.

Palmer, a retired wildlife manager, lives in a small residence between Rociada and Pendaries, north of Hermits Peak.

“I left on Saturday (April 9),” she said. “Or maybe it was Sunday. The days merge.

Palmer is staying with a friend in Mora. She is at the shelter not to ask for help but to offer it.

The gymnasium is stocked with water bottles, piles of canned goods and other necessities.

Few people spend the night. But those displaced by the fire are stopping to pick up things they need while living in homes of friends or relatives, or in camper vans.

“I’m extremely impressed with how this community has come together,” Palmer said. “People donate food. The restaurants bring hot dishes. There has been such an outpouring of people wanting to help.

“It is heartwarming that at a time when there are so many divisions in our country, we have neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends and strangers helping strangers.”

Palmer’s house is stucco with a metal roof.

When she evacuated, she managed to remove some valuable paintings from the wall, some pottery pieces that she had created herself, some favorite clothes, and some important papers. Photographer and ceramist, she was forced to leave behind her photographs, most of her pottery and her books, which she considers lifelong friends.

She’s seen her share of wildfires, having worked over the years as a wildlife manager for a number of state and federal agencies.

“But this is the first in which I was so impacted,” she said.

On Thursday morning, Gary Morton watched the Hermits Peak Fire burn on a ridge just south of his home in Sapello, about 13 miles north of Las Vegas.

His house, parts of which are a log cabin built a hundred years ago, has been without power for some time.

“There’s a lot of inconvenience, but I’m not worried about the fire,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s close, less than half a mile. But it’s on the other side of the highway.

Morton is the ranch owner and caretaker of 300 acres in Sapello.

No cattle graze on the property currently, but there are five horses. Evacuation is mandatory for this area, but Morton said he found out you couldn’t be forced to leave.

“So I didn’t,” he said. “I sit at night and watch the fire. There are a lot of resources here, trucks driving on the road. I see four trucks sitting in front of neighbors’ houses. They are in protection mode.

“Today I see men on foot and I hear chainsaws turning. They’re actually walking on that ridge and cutting that stuff. The wind has died down today, but should pick up again this afternoon. It can blow up with the wind and spin out of control.

Lake Storrie is part of the Las Vegas water supply. The city can store up to 42 million gallons of water in three off-river reservoirs, including Lake Storrie. The Hermits Peak fire could leave the town reliant on its water reservoirs this summer. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

That’s why he doesn’t understand why the Forest Service started a prescribed burn. “Controlled burnout out of control,” he said. “It was one of the driest winters in recent memory. I don’t care what the weather reports say, I don’t think I’m going to lose a game. We had wind here for two weeks. We had timber cut down and all kinds of things.

Palmer has never worked for the Forest Service, but she’s willing to give the agency the benefit of the doubt.

“There’s a reason they do prescribed burns,” she said. “They are trying to manage resources for the future. No one wants anyone to lose their home or their livestock. I don’t think this is the time to criticize. This is the time to stick together, support each other and support each other. When the fire is out, it will be time to look at what could have been done differently.

Palmer said we shouldn’t overlook what she sees as the root cause of wildfires today.

“I strongly believe that any discussion of the cause of this fire should also include a serious discussion of climate change,” she said. “Because the truth is, climate change is having a huge impact on the frequency, severity, and ferocity of the fires we experience in New Mexico these days.”

Both Palmer and Morton are aware of the threat the Hermits Peak fire poses to the Gallinas watershed.

“There is a concern for the integrity of the watershed,” Palmer said. “I have no doubt that the people fighting this fire take that into account.”

In the meantime, city officials are working to keep the tanks full and free of ash.

The impact may be less severe if the fire does not burn more of the watershed.

“We won’t know until the rains come,” Gilvarry said. “But if you get ash in a reservoir or a lake, it could take years for that body of water to be healthy again.”

Theresa Davis is a member of the Report for America body that covers water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

Carol N. Valencia