Editor’s Note: The following story was made possible in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation for Frontera NorteSur’s special coverage of southern New Mexico.
With New Mexico’s massive Whitewater-Baldy forest fire now mainly contained, official attention is turning to the dangers of flooding in the huge burn area located in the southwestern part of the state. Last week, the US Geological Survey (USGS) announced that it had installed six early warning devices so authorities can notify residents of imminent floods up to one hour prior to an expected event.
Transmitting data via satellite, the instruments assess the dangers of flooding at critical moments as well as give forest managers relevant information for evaluating the risk of flooding, which typically surges during New Mexico’s summer monsoon reason.
In a news release, the USGS noted that “communities downstream from burned watersheds are at risk of flash flooding and debris flows because of the loss of vegetation and the burned soil’s reduced ability to absorb water.”
According to the USGS, the new early warning system can be accessed on home computers.
Federal officials scheduled a July 6 workshop in Glenwood, NM, to instruct residents on how to use the system. In addition to the USGS, other federal and state agencies that cooperated in paying for and installing the early warning system included the US Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and the New Mexico State Division of Forestry.
Set off by lightning strikes last May, this year’s Whitewater-Baldy fire scorched about 300,000 acres in southwestern New Mexico, affecting terrain in the ecologically sensitive Gila Wilderness Area. Drifting far from the core of the giant blaze, smoke and haze reached the Paso de Norte borderland. The Whitewater-Baldy fire is considered the largest forest fire in New Mexico history.
USGS Director Marcia McNutt said the destruction wrought by infernos like Whitewater-Baldy continues long after the smoke settles and firefighters head home.
“The tragedy of fire does not end when the flames are extinguished, but extends for years until new growth can re-establish flood control that protects communities when all-too-common copious rain events happen in the Southwest,” McNutt said. “The USGS and our partners are installing extra monitoring to help warn communities at risk downslope of the burned regions to help save lives and property.”
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico