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Feds spend millions on immediate post-fire effects

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press / July 13, 2012
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Nearly $25 million has already been spent to prepare for the immediate aftermath of this year's wildfires, putting the U.S. Forest Service on track for another possible record year of spending on burned-area recovery efforts.

So far, nearly all of the money is going toward building water bars, removing hazardous trees and spreading seed across hundreds of square miles in southern New Mexico. The state recorded both its largest and its most destructive wildfires in the last two months.

Neighboring Colorado is also having its worst fire season in a decade. Teams of biologists, hydrologists and soil scientists are on the ground there, analyzing what it will take to deal with post-fire flooding and other hazards.

Once their work is done, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman said he expects spending to increase significantly.

"This is a very critical stage in the process," Sherman told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "Obviously if we can deal with potential flooding and erosion concerns early on, we will all be much better off."

Scientists weigh everything from weather forecasts and topography to the location of streams and the severity of the burn when determining how much will have to be spent on each acre to keep the damage from getting worse.

In New Mexico, about $14 million in Burned Area Emergency Recovery funding has been spent on a lightning-sparked fire that raced across more than 465 square miles of the Gila National Forest. Another $9 million is being spent on shoring up water ways and removing debris in the wake of the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso, where more than 240 homes were destroyed.

Last year, the Forest Service spent a record total of $48 million on burned-area recovery work. The funding comes from the agency's annual fire suppression budget.

The formula for recovery is just as complicated as the factors -- drought, decades of fire suppression and climate change -- giving rise to more severe fires in the West, experts say.

"With the kinds of intensity we've seen on some of the recent fires, there is, for all practical purposes, permanent impairment of the ecosystem," said Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

He pointed specifically to last year's Las Conchas Fire near Los Alamos, which burned through hundreds of square miles of tinder dry forest, destroyed dozens of homes and threatened one of the nation's premier government laboratories.

Flooding from the Las Conchas burn scar still remains a concern.

On Wednesday night, a wall of water rushed down Santa Clara Canyon, washing away months of restoration work done by Santa Clara Pueblo and government contractors.

"Our prayers are that it does not get any worse than what it is," Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno said.

In the canyon, post-fire flooding has moved car-sized boulders and toppled trees as if they were toothpicks.

"Until you're on the ground and you see it, you can't gauge how much stress it's placing on our families," Dasheno said, explaining that the pueblo sits at the mouth of the canyon.

Sherman was aware of the flooding near Santa Clara, but said there have been no reports of major flood damage related to the recent string of fires in New Mexico and Colorado.

Aside from those two states, Sherman said burned-area response specialists are working in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Contracts are being finalized for seeding and mulching, roads and trails are being stabilized, culverts are being prepped for higher flows of water and warning signs are going up.

On the massive Whitewater-Baldy Fire in southwestern New Mexico, seeding started Thursday on more than 26,000 acres and straw mulch will be spread over another 16,000 acres.


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