Cause of blaze still under investigation; county-wide burn ban enacted

Nearly two decades of restoration and protection of a local wildlife conservation area has gone up in smoke as a bosque fire tore through Valencia County last week.

When the Big Hole Fire started shortly after 1 p.m., Monday, April 11, Andrew Hautzinger was struck by an uncanny sense of the familiar.

“The feeling was exactly, ‘We’ve been here before,’” said Hautzinger, the district director for the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District.

As he and district staff stood in front of the visitor and education center at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, east of the Rio Grande, the towering pillar of smoke brought back memories of three years ago.

“I saw the 2019 Ironworks Fire presented exactly again. This column of smoke stood up a mile or two away,” he said. “I felt we were relatively safe then. That’s the downside to seeing the cup half full — sometimes I’m surprised.”

Remembering the path of the Ironworks Fire, which also started west of the river, jumped east and swept north, just missing Whitfield, Hautzinger headed to the west side of the river to see what was happening.

He was quickly turned back from the ditchbank road by fire personnel and as he returned to Whitfield, the heavy winds pushed the fire across the river and headed for the conservation area.

“From the time it got me to get from there back to (Whitfield) it jumped the river,” he said. “It pretty much headed straight north but then it took just a bit of a curve to the east over the San Juan Drain and into Whitfield.”

Photo courtesy of Andrew Hautzinger
What was long thought to be intertwined limbs of a single tree at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, was eventually revealed to be individual male and female cottonwood trees, a “couple” that held each other steady over the years. Both trees were destroyed last week during the Big Hole Fire.

With human safety first and foremost in his mind, Hautzinger sent two staff members home while he and Johnny Chavez, the district’s conservation program manager, remained on site.

“Johnny and I have a fire background; we were quickly in contact with fire officials. They suggested using Whitfield as a staging area and, I, of course said yes. We are a community asset in all regards.”

They closed the refuge and opened the gates, and for four days hosted a steady presence of fire personnel from federal and state to local crews.

When the flames were at their worst, Hautzinger said he heard one firefighter comment they don’t fight fires, they fight to protect structures.

“On day three, he said they can’t fight fire in the bosque under these conditions,” Hautzinger said.

An assessment of the 97 acres that is Whitfield shows 75 to 80 percent of the area was burned, and an early assessment indicates upwards of 90 percent of the large native trees won’t survive, Hautzinger said.

Saying he believes the bosque is now largely unmanaged, the director said the ability to fight fires on the scale they are happening now “forces us to only look at protecting structures. We have to make horrible sacrifices of places like Whitfield while protecting our neighbor’s houses. The time has well since passed that we need to have a solution at the scale of the problem.

“We, on the government side, need to find way to go from 5 to 50 to 500 acres in our treatments … like effective fuel breaks, strategic thinning. I also think treatments that are thoughtful of regenerative farming, looking to reimplement farming techniques our ancestors used to great benefit.

“I really believe with a collaborative framework, we should be able to find a way to get animals back in the bosque, using managed, rotational grazing to reduce intense buildup of fuels. There has to be a creative way of getting animals back in for vegetation clearance that is compatible with the environmental and endangered species needs.”

While the thought that fire is cleansing and beneficial, that doesn’t hold true for ecosystems like those in the bosque and Whitfield.

Those riparian systems are not fire-evolved systems, Hautzinger said, but rather flood adapted.

“Fires, here in our bosque, most typically are found to encourage, to increase nonnative, invasive species. That’s the hard depressing piece of it,” he said.

For the fire to have a positive ecological response in an area like Whitfield, there needs to be carefully planned management, Hautzinger said.

“There are areas so badly burned the native grasses are dead,” he said. “We can overseed those areas and help them in the right direction.

“I think the biggest silver lining is the education opportunity that recognizes our bosque management has to improve. Our ability to fight fire more effectively has to improve. All partners have to play together because it’s bigger than any one of us. I think, ideally, my organization is situated to be a bridge for these different conversations.”

Photo courtesy of Andrew Hautzinger
As the ashes of the Big Hole Fire cool, areas like this outdoor classroom at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area are no more. The conservation area was hit hard by the fire, losing 75 to 80 percent of its 97 acres to the blaze.

The recovery at Whitfield will need to be managed along a continuum, he said, with careful, long-term plans laid out to nurture the remaining system. Hautzinger said staff will continue monitoring to determine which trees are truly dead and begin watering areas most likely to benefit.

“In the midst of that, we will be looking for support from our government partners to do a formal fire assessment and restoration design. Anyone in government that has money, or big grants,” he said with a grim chuckle. “I think it could easily be in the millions to replant. We have a fully-committed staff and a board that is supporting doing our planning right, even if it takes nine, 12 months.

“We really want to have the best of science deployed here so we are making the best choices, that the plants we put in are climate and fire adapted. Perhaps most importantly, we want to play role as being a demonstration area for community on how to go through an assessment of damage and into the restoration phase.”

The districts annual Earth Day Science Fiesta is still going to be held this weekend, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday and Saturday, April 22 and 23, at Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, 2424 N.M. 47. Hautzinger said they will use the opportunity to incorporate fire education into the activities.

“I imagine for the next several years, the western half of Whitfield will be closed off because of dead trees and safety issues there,” he said. “I ask my fellow lovers of Whitfield to be patient as we find a path to reopen and regrow.”

As of Tuesday morning, Valencia County Fire Chief Matt Propp said the Big Hole was at 85 percent contained. The fire was downgraded from a type 4 to a type 5 incident that same morning, he said, and the total area burned held at 890 acres.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Propp said.

“We still have some state (fire) resources on scene and probably will through the end of the week. They are looking for hot spots, patrolling the fire area to make sure no trees are a threat to the public or branches to bring down,” Propp said. “We hope to call this 100 percent contained by the end of the week. Each day, containment has been going up 3 or 4 percent. This fire had so many different areas it’s a matter of getting to each individual area to make sure the containment lines are holding. We want to get to all the areas before we say it’s contained.”

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, far right, was at the Rio Communities Fire Station Friday morning, speaking to local officials about the Big Hole Fire, fire protection and more. Pictured, from left, are Rio Communities Mayor Joshua Ramsell, Valencia County Commissioner Joseph Bizzell, Belen Mayor Robert Noblin, and New Mexico Sens. Joshua Sanchez and Gregory Baca.

With the burn area spread over hundreds of acres, Propp said the public is going to be the fire services’ best resource for tracking flare-ups.

“If someone happens to see a tree with an active fire, they should call it in and we’ll get a crew out there,” the chief said. “The things we worry about with trees like that is the fire can spread and the fire can make a tree unstable and suddenly fall. We want to mitigate that. If people see something like that, please call it in.”

Now that the situation has calmed, Propp said he hopes the public has a better understanding of just how resource intensive large-scale fires can be.

“We are competing with fires around the state,” he said. “That should reinforce why we enacted a burn ban.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.