N.M. Blaze Rages Out of Control, Growing in Threat

June 27, 2013
Firefighters are working in difficult, steep terrain, fighting a force of nature sparked by a lightning strike June 9.

June 27--PECOS -- The rapidly-expanding Jaroso Fire may not stay just a remote wilderness fire for long.

The fire in the Pecos Wilderness north of Santa Fe that was started by lightning on June 9 more than doubled in size during a run to the south and east over the past couple of days, and now there are worries about campgrounds and houses in its path -- as well as the headwaters of the Pecos River.

A U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman said the fire was burning close to the river along its wild and scenic portion in the wilderness north of Cowles and east of Pecos Baldy mountain. The fire, reported at about 4,500 acres on Monday, had charred more than 9,400 acres by Wednesday morning.

But fire activity was somewhat lighter during the day Wednesday, allowing air tanker crews to make water and fire-retardant drops along the burn's south and east sides. A worrisome spot fire observed on the east side of the Pecos River on Tuesday night failed to establish itself.

Dolores Maese of the Forest Service also said ground crews, while not directly attacking the blaze, were out searching for trails or natural features that could help with establishment of fire lines or otherwise slow the fire.

Now considered "at risk" from the portion of the Jaroso Fire burning toward the south from Pecos Baldy and East Pecos Baldy is the Jack's Creek Campground, the northernmost recreational site along the popular Pecos Canyon, accessed via NM 63 out of the village of Pecos.

Maese said the fire was two or three miles from Jack's Creek Wednesday morning.

Also listed as at-risk on the fire's southern front are the nearby Panchuela and Iron Gate campgrounds and homes or cabins in the Grass Mountain, Pecos Canyon Estates, Winsor and Cowles areas around the north end of NM 63.

On the east side of the fire, along with the Pecos River itself, the fire is now said to be a possible threat to homes, cabins and other structures several miles away, well east of the river.

These include structures along NM 276 and Forest Road 60 and around small San Miguel or Mora county settlements in the general vicinity of Morphy Lake State Park, including Gascon, Upper Rociada, Camp Davis and Ledoux.

At a public meeting on the fire at Pecos High School on Wednesday night, there was frustration from residents who have watched the fire burn largely unchecked. One was Toni Truesdale, of Pecos, a who said the column of smoke coming from the fire Tuesday resembled an atomic bomb's mushroom cloud. "It's heartbreaking to see what's going on with this fire," she said.

Chris Ames of Pecos spoke up after that, saying that the firefighters are working in difficult, steep terrain, fighting a force of nature. "These firefighters are doing their best," he said. "We're human beings, and we're fighting God."

Double hit on canyon

The Jaroso's quick expansion this week presents the possibility of a double whammy on Pecos Canyon, one of the state's most popular areas for fishing, camping and hiking. The canyon contains numerous vacation homes, cabins and campgrounds as well as year-round residences along the river and NM 63.

The Tres Lagunas Fire, which started in late May and is now more than 90 percent contained, has burned more than 10,000 acres farther south in and near the canyon, around Terrero and Holy Ghost Creek.

No structures were destroyed, but a federal government post-fire study team is predicting heavy floods during monsoon rains this summer and has recommended closing all or part of the Tres Lagunas burn area for two or three years.

Ash and debris is likely to be a problem for fisheries, including the Pecos and its tributary creeks, according to the Burned Area Emergency Response Team. Now, with the Jaroso threatening the Pecos' northern reaches, things could get worse.

"That whole area is just going to be devastated, depending on where the rains come and how hard it rains. There are just a lot of factors that can kind of play into it," Jesse Lee, who works at The Reel Life fishing and guide shop in Santa Fe, told the Associated Press. "I think everyone is planning for the worse and hoping for the best."

"We're just really concerned about the community up there," Lee said. "I think it's going to affect them so much harder than the average recreationist. It's going to be a complete game changer for the canyon."

Dead trees torched

Maese said earlier predictions by fire managers that the Jaroso would be contained by Sunday were a mistake. "That was kind of a shot in the dark," she said. "They estimated some showers coming in and slowing it down."

The Jaroso earlier burned through a 1,300-acre patch of dead trees blown down by high winds years ago and is now feeding off large patches of bug-killed trees. Maese said helicopter surveillance shows "huge patches of gray in the wilderness" where the dead trees are. "When it hits one of those stands, the fire just torches up," she said.

Robert Morales of the Santa Fe National Forest told the crowd at Pecos High that fighting the Jaroso Fire has been difficult because the steep terrain and downed trees pose a serious risk to firefighters. "The last thing we wanted to do was get a fire fighter killed," he said.

The Forest Service's Steven Miranda said firefighters are looking for "management action points" where fire suppression crews can be safe should the fire reach them, such as the river, Hamilton Mesa and Horsethief Creek.

The Forest Service is bringing in a higher-level firefighting group, a Wildland Fire Management Team with more experience on longer duration fires, to take on the Jaroso. A total of 132 people were fighting the fire Wednesday.

Copyright 2013 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

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