08 August 2022

An Up-Close View on the Impact of New Mexico's Largest Single Wildfire

Written by: Elizabeth Sorells

Hello all, my name is Elizabeth Sorells and I work out of the Southwestern Regional Office (R3) as the Air Program and Climate Change resource assistant. I am currently sitting at my home forest, the Gila National Forest, where I've had the unique opportunity to go out into the field on the Black Fire burn scar with members of the BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) team. The Black fire currently sits at the largest single wildfire in New Mexico history with a total acreage of nearly 330,000 acres or just over 500 square miles burned. This fire originated in the Tom Moore canyon in the Gila National Forest and over 90% of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness was burned by this wildfire.


To gain some field experience during my virtual assignment with the regional office, members of the BAER team took me to the western perimeter of the burn scar, near the origin of the fire. Reconnaissance assessments on the post fire effects of heavy rains to Forest Service roads and infrastructure were analyzed this day. I got to work with the watershed and air program manager for the Gila National Forest and the forest soil scientist.

We came through Rocky Canyon and Black Canyon to get onto the upper ridge of the western perimeter of the fire. The effects of fire were blatantly obvious – bare soil, charred trees, mudslides, erosion, flooding, and masses of debris flow. I have been through these canyons many times throughout my life, both recreationally and for work duties, and I have never seen them in the condition that they were in. I have been through these canyons during our annual monsoon rain events and during periods of drier weather and have only ever seen the creeks with either no flow, or low to moderate stream flow. On this trip, almost all stream systems were flowing at a high rate to the point that water was flowing over infrastructure such as bridges and had washed out many forest service maintained roads. It was noted that at the Black Canyon campground that many of the known and established beaver dams had been washed away by post-fire flooding. This area is an established Gila trout recovery stream. Historically they were present in this stream. In addition to the Gila trout (O. gilae), the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog (L. chiricahuensis) and the Narrow-headed garter snake (T. rufipunctatus) are found within Black Canyon and are expected to suffer significantly and/or be extirpated. Further up the road at Diamond Creek and South Diamond Creek are locations that Gila trout are relic to, so emergency rescue efforts via helicopter were done here to try and save these populations.

Other field observations that I noted included how much alligator juniper (J. deppeana) had burned to the ground. Juniper is typically a very hearty wood that is difficult to burn, so when I saw that pinyon-juniper woodlands had suffered greatly with juniper entirely scorched, it brought into question what about fire had changed. Could climate change be playing a role in this? As periods of severe drought become an increasing norm to the region, this opens the opportunity for trees to be more susceptible to insect infestations, causing rot and disease, which in turn would allow such a hearty wood to burn. I hope to investigate what has changed within the climate to allow fires to rage to the capacity of the Black fire.

Agency: U.S Forest Service

Program: Resource Assistant Program (RAP)

Location: Southwestern Regional Office

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