US Forest Service prescribed fire burns out of control
They were told to evacuate, but the Atencio family couldn’t let the fire take their ranch headquarters.
With buckets and a garden hose, James Atencio and his wife Barbara and sons Matthew and Aaron protected their home, barns, corrals, weanling calves, bulls and more from the flames that leveled a house just behind them and came to within 50 feet of their New Mexico ranch home. Another son, Will, was protecting his own home across the valley.
“It just roared when it came over the top of the mountain. It was deafening. Trees were popping. It was a very hot fire. We felt the noise, we felt the heat from the fire. We thought we were going to catch on fire,” said 73-year-old James, who battled the blaze until 4 a.m., when his son told him to rest. “He said dad, you’d better take a nap. My wife and I sat on the couch for an hour but we couldn’t sleep so we went back out to help.”
Atencio said his cows survived the fire, finding safety in an open meadow that didn’t burn.
One neighbor lost several cows, three pack horses, pack saddles, tack and other saddles, along with a tack room. No big numbers of cattle deaths have been reported. “Most rely on open spaces” such as cleared meadows for their cattle to harbor, he said. “We’re at the end of our grazing season here where there isn’t any tall grass, it’s been grazed by the cattle.”
Francisco Sanchez, another rancher in the Las Vegas, N.M., (the “original” Las Vegas) area said two fires are burning through the Sangre De Cristo Mountains (in north central New Mexico, east of Santa Fe.) The first, known as the Hermit’s Peak fire, began as a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn, which got past containment efforts. Sanchez said it was lit on a “red flag warning” day for fire. It is thought that perhaps a spark from the Hermit’s Peak fire lit the “Calf Canyon” fire that burned through the Atencio ranch. The cause of the Calf Canyon fire is still under investigation. The two fires have merged into one.
Much of the approximately 260,000 acres that have burned is forested, said Sanchez.
“Much of the fire’s growth is in thick, heavy timber and steep, rugged terrain,” said Inciweb, the fire reporting site.
POOR FOREST MANAGEMENT
Sanchez and Atencio both say that poor forest management over the years has made it very difficult to gain control over the fire.
“They’ve been blaming these mega fires lately on climate change,” said Sanchez. “Maybe that has a little to do with it but in my opinion it is also caused by poor forest management.”
“The people with private tracts of land who have worked closely with the New Mexico Forestry Department to thin the trees, you can tell when the fire hits those areas, it slows down,” he said. “But there are a lot of places on federal land it just crowned and ran.”
Atencio echoes these concerns. “It’s been a long time coming. We kind of had a feeling it was going to happen eventually but not in the scope it did. It spread every which direction. We’re in an exceptional drought right now,” he said. “Our forest was devastated. We had a beautiful forest behind our meadows and now it’s just sticks, not even branches. Behind us is federal land and what burned with the federal land is our private forest,” he said. “When it got into private land with thinning projects, it was real low key, it wasn’t cresting or anything.”
“As a taxpayer, I want to know, where is the money being utilized? Nothing is being done to manage the forest. We have to be held accountable for our own personal actions. They have to be held accountable, too. It’s devastating.”
Some of Atencio’s cattle graze on the federal Pecos Wilderness, where motorized vehicles aren’t allowed, Atencio said.
“You can hardly walk through parts of the forest, let alone horses and cattle — they can’t get through some of it. It’s dead and downed trees. It will be devastating if we get a fire in the wilderness,” he said.
Atencio has photographs dating back to 1875, when the forest was harvested and much healthier, he said.
NO MORE LOGGING
“Right behind where the hills are, you can see a tree here and there because people used the wood for firewood, railroad ties. The forest was harvested. All these tree huggers, now there are no trees to hug. You can give them credit for this. It burned through the national forest and then came to our private land and it burned our homes.”
Atencio said several lumber mills now sit idle in the area due to lawsuits filed by anti-logging groups.
The Atencio cattle and other cattle in the area graze on federal and private land. Some graze in the wilderness area for about three months, within the forest itself and also on high mountain meadows.
The grazing association, including the Atencio family, met with the U.S. Forest Service on May 13. So far, they will still be allowed to graze their cattle on their allotments that have not yet burned, beginning June 15, but if a devastating burn goes through their grazing areas, it could be two to three years before they are able to graze there. “That will put us out of business,” said Atencio. He said others would be forced to sell their cows, too, if they lose the ability to graze the federal land in the area.
FEMA is in the area, taking applications to help those with significant personal losses. “But we won’t know until later if it comes through,” Atencio said. They don’t know if they will be compensated for lost hay, grass, or other feed.
Due to drought conditions, Atencio and other ranchers have reduced their herd sizes. “The drought has devastated us. We don’t have the feed. I usually put up about 2,500 to 3,000 bales but this last year I put up about 250.”
Atencio appreciates Sanchez and Dr. Ashley Sanchez, DVM, (Cisco’s wife) for working with veterinarian organizations to secure donations for hay to help ranchers whose feed reserves were reduced to ashes. Local feed stores have also donated livestock feed as well as dog and cat food, Atencio said.
Strong winds and low humidity continue to push the fire onward, but forecasted lower winds may give crews a chance to rein it in soon, said Sanchez.
“This is fixing to be the biggest forest fire in New Mexico history,” said Atencio.
If you would like to contribute hay, feed or provide financial assistance, please contact the New Mexico Livestock Board.
April Riggs — (575) 643-6162, firstname.lastname@example.org — Area 2 supervisor-Regional Operations Manager for northeast New Mexico.
Matthew Romero – (575) 643-6805 — District 18 supervisor.
Jose Miera — (505) 203-9267 — District 18 inspector.
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