Regulatory Employees Rapidly Respond to Whitewater-Baldy Fire
The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history burned through an area of largely remote wilderness from May to July in southern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, leaving debris and a burn scar that will affect several small, remote communities for years. It was dubbed the “Whitewater-Baldy” Fire.
Multiple federal, state and local government entities including the Corps, U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the N.M. Department of Transportation (NMDOT), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and county officials joined the effort to prevent and minimize a myriad of potential post-fire threats in the region.
The first phase, begun before the fire was fully contained, identified emergency stabilization projects to minimize further damage to life, property or natural resources. The USFS’s Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team – composed of an interdisciplinary group of specialists – rapidly evaluated the affected area and used risk analysis to determine the probability and severity of threats. Then, they identified and prioritized projects for places most at risk.
Many of the high priority projects identified were in or near rivers, creeks and other drainage areas, which the Corps’ regulates under the authority of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
Basically, the Corps reviews proposed projects and issues a permit, if needed, before any work can start in regulated waters. Some applications do not require permits. While the Corps won’t waive permit requirements in emergency situations, they can be expedited. For the areas affected by the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, the projects received priority review and response. In a non-emergency situation, the permit process can take up to 45 days for general permit authorizations and four months for complex permits.
The District’s Las Cruces Regulatory Office handles permit applications in 19 counties in West Texas and seven counties in Southern New Mexico, including Catron and Grant counties, the two most affected by the fire. Richard Gatewood, an environmental engineer, and Justin Riggs, a regulatory specialist, are the District’s primary regulators who reviewed permit applications related to the Whitewater-Baldy Fire.
Gatewood and Riggs said that of all the categories of Nationwide General Permits the Corps issues, they primarily issued three types – permits 3, 13 and 37. Permit 3 covers structure maintenance, permit 13 covers bank stabilization activities necessary for erosion prevention and permit 37 covers emergency watershed protection and rehabilitation work done by, or funded by, the NRCS, USFS and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Customer service is an action, not a noun,” Gatewood said, explaining how he and Riggs approach working with the communities affected by the fire. Gatewood said his goal was a three to five day response for these permit applications.
He and Riggs spent significant time reviewing and evaluating applications so work could be done in a timely manner and ahead of the monsoon season. The region receives approximately 15 to 16 inches of rain a year and much of that falls during the monsoons from mid-July through October. The regulators knew that even a small rain event over the burned area can bring lots of water and debris downstream, causing flooding.
At one project, the regulators received applications for emergency repair of levees. They issued permits within two to three days, and the work was done just in time. The night after it was completed, flood flows came down, but the levees held.
“Residents credited the Corps’ efforts as having helped save their homes and properties from being flooded,” Gatewood said.
Gatewood added that a resident who lives next to a levee told him that, once the levee work was completed, she slept her first peaceful night in 28 years, because she didn’t fear being flooded.
Darrel Allred is a community leader in the recovery effort and lives in Glenwood, N.M. He said that while the fire was not the fault of residents, they have to deal with the effects of it. Allred praised Gatewood and Riggs, who he said, “went out of their way” to help the community. This sentiment was echoed by other Glenwood residents during a meeting Aug.14 with representatives from several government agencies to discuss the current situation. Allred and other residents also thanked the USFS and NMDOT employees for their hard work.
However, while many residents expressed their appreciation for the agencies, there was also frustration at what Glenwood resident Larry Blount called “bureaucratic foot dragging.”
Anthony Gutierrez, Grant County planning director, said it is usually “difficult going through the permitting process” for non-emergency restoration and maintenance projects. He added that the planning requirements are a time-consuming process, involving multiple agencies, and can cost so much there often isn’t much money left for the actual project construction. This is especially difficult, he said, for local sponsors with limited funds and resources.
The other common complaint Gutierrez and others mentioned is vegetation growth in the river beds. The local sponsors, such as the county, are responsible for riverbed maintenance. However, different regulating agencies must approve maintenance work, so, he said, getting maintenance authorization is sometimes difficult to obtain, especially if endangered species have moved into the vegetation growth. Thus, in many places, minimal maintenance was done, resulting in more work after the fire.
Gatewood summed up what he said he sees as the main lessons learned from the Whitewater-Baldy Fire. “Across the board the lessons are, during the onset of an emergency, the Corps’ actions must be swift and decisive, and the Corps must remain engaged and dedicated throughout the recovery period. During times of crisis, the Corps can provide leadership and focus its considerable expertise and resources to make a difference and add value to the response effort.”
Fast Fire Facts
-The Baldy Fire, started May 9 and the Whitewater Fire, started May 16, merged May 23, forming the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire. (Lightening caused both).
-Strong winds of 40-50 mph accelerated the fire’s burn area from an estimated 1,824 acres the evening of May 22 to more than 70,000 acres on May 24. It quickly became the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
-The two counties most affected were Catron County, population 3,733, and Grant County, population 29,380. The total population of New Mexico is slightly over 2 million. Catron County, with 6,923 square miles, is New Mexico’s largest county in land size, but the least populated.
-The fires burned primarily in the Gila Wilderness Area – steep, rugged and largely remote terrain. Flame lengths up to 200 feet were observed as the fire burned through mixed conifer, ponderosa pine and pinion juniper.
-As of July 23, with the fire 95 percent contained, more than 297,845 acres had burned, which eclipsed 2011’s Las Conchas Fire (156,593 acres). But, it was far from the largest U.S. fire, since several have burned in the millions of acres.