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People in New Mexico brace for other issues a menacing wildfire will create


The biggest fire in New Mexico's history is still growing, and officials are struggling to prevent mudslides and protect the clean water that's especially precious in the arid southwest. From member station KUNM, Alice Fordham reports.


ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Firefighting aircraft buzz over Las Vegas, N.M., as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire continues raging to the north. But here, city utilities director Maria Gilvarry is already contemplating the aftermath.

MARIA GILVARRY: So this area that we're looking down on is directly over - it's over the Gallinas River.

FORDHAM: Gilvarry has driven us to look down at a rocky canyon onto the city's only water source.

GILVARRY: It's sad 'cause this whole mountainside, just a little over a month ago, was - looked like that section down there - tall, green pine trees.

FORDHAM: Now, there's maybe a two-mile stretch of the blackened remnants of tree trunks and ashy moon dust.

GILVARRY: All of those - possibly hundreds of thousands of former bushy pine trees at some point are going to come down.

FORDHAM: Without intervention, in a few weeks, the southwestern rains known as the monsoon will likely wash away the trees and soil, contaminating the river and clogging the treatment system. Gilvarry is working with engineers.

GILVARRY: To find ways to create debris barricades - something to hold back these trees.

FORDHAM: She's having lots of meetings with FEMA, Army engineers, with forestry officials. This kind of work can cost tens of millions. Back in her office, I ask who's going to pay.

GILVARRY: Depends on who's the entity that's responsible for that area. They're going to have to help find who's going to help pay for it.

FORDHAM: Debate about who foots the bill may drag on. The fires that got out of control here were started as planned burns by the U.S. Forest Service. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has called for the federal government to pay for the damage, and such debates are likely to become more common.

FERNANDO ROSARIO-ORTIZ: The fire season you keep hearing - that used to be so many months over the summer. Now, we're getting to be year-round.

FORDHAM: This is Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He studies the effect of fire on water sources.

ROSARIO-ORTIZ: The major forested areas in the western United States - you know, that's when we see fires, but that's also where we're getting the water from.

FORDHAM: According to government data, about 80% of the U.S.'s freshwater resource originates on forested land. Rosario-Ortiz says there's more planning for wildfire impact on water.

ROSARIO-ORTIZ: I've worked directly with utilities in the East Coast, even in the upstate, where maybe you don't think so much about fires, but it's not hard to fathom a future where fires can impact on New England as well.

FORDHAM: In New Mexico, some smaller communities don't think they're going to get help soon.


FORDHAM: In the town of Chacon, which has about 115 homes, I hike up into the charred mountainside with Jerry Martinez (ph), who manages water here.

JERRY MARTINEZ: It's going to be a mess when the rain gets here. If we get the monsoons that we normally get, all of this will be down in that canyon in there.

FORDHAM: That will contaminate the water used for livestock and crops. He also says, after the fire, a spring used for drinking water has changed course.

MARTINEZ: It's pitiful. I don't know what the answer is.


FORDHAM: And as we drive out of the valley, a gust of wind teases a little plume of smoke as we watch flames lick up and begin to burn another mountainside.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.