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Burned forest land after a wildfire

NRCS New Mexico's Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Disaster Assistance

NRCS New Mexico has worked hard to provide timely and significant disaster assistance to those communities devasted by the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Fire and Flooding.

Firefighters look on at the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Wildfire
The Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon wildfire burned over 500 square miles of land. 

 

The Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Fire of 2022

In the summer of 2022, extreme drought conditions, low snowpack, and high winds combined to create the worst wildfire season New Mexico had ever seen. The largest and most devasting of those fires was the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire. Ultimately, the fire would burn close to 342,000 acres (over 500 sq. miles) and over 900 structures, becoming the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. For residents of the affected communities, the disaster was exacerbated even more when monsoon season rains followed on the burn scar, causing massive and devasting flooding. 


Small communities in and around the area like Mora and Rociada were directly hit while the surrounding area, including the town of Las Vegas, felt the significant impact of the disaster. There are no good disasters, but this one particularly hurt, as unique landscapes, histories, and cultures dating back centuries were threatened or lost.

 

NRCS Boots on the Ground

NRCS is a locally-led agency, with field offices in nearly every county of the state. Many employees who live and work in the community were touched by the disaster. 

NRCS Chief Terry Cosby looks on as a resident shows him damage from the Hermit's Peak Calf Canyon wildfire and flooding.
NRCS Chief Terry Cosby listens to a resident showing the damage from the Hermit's Peak Calf Canyon wildfire and flooding. 

Kenneth Branch, the NRCS NM Assistant State Conservationist for Programs, grew up in the community and graduated from Mora High School. As the fire spread, he was monitoring the situation and meeting with Gerald Romero and Wanda Martinez, the District Managers of the Tierra Y Montes and Western Mora Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) to begin planning how NRCS might implement their Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program to aid the community. Even as the fire burned on in various areas, NRCS had boots on the ground completing assessments and damage survey reports where possible.  
 

 

Initial Response

On May 4, 2022, President Biden issued a major disaster declaration in the state and ordered federal aid be made available to support the recovery effort. Eventually, the government did accept responsibility for the fire. President Biden announced that the U.S. Government would cover 100% of the costs caused by the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon fire. Shortly after, NRCS Chief Terry Cosby announced a historic waiver of cost-share requirements for EWP assistance to the affected communities. NRCS would fund 100% of the cost of post-wildfire recovery efforts, allowing NRCS to use EWP funds to implement much-needed aerial seeding — a successful post-wildfire conservation practice that helps reduce soil erosion, restore ground cover, and establish native plant species, all things needed for the burn scar to mitigate the impacts of any potential future flooding. By early August, NRCS NM was implementing one of the largest aerial seeding and mulching operations in NRCS history.  

A crew member stands on top of the aircraft wing to guide the seed into the plane to be dropped on the burn scar.
A crew member stands on the aircraft's wing to guide in the seed that will be dropped on the burn scar.
Tierra Y Montes Soil and Water Conservation District Manager, Gerald Romero Speaks at an Event
NRCS Partners were critical in informing the community about EWP and obtaining landowner permissions. Tierra Y Montes SWCD District Manager, Gerald Romero speaks at an event.


Tierra Y Montes Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) and Western Mora SWCD were critical partners in obtaining permissions from landowners to seed and mulch. The SWCDs and NRCS NM attended numerous roundtables, town halls, and information sharing events with the community to inform and explain the benefits of the EWP program for protecting not only a landowner’s own land, property, and structures, but potentially also protecting the land and property of any neighbors who might be further down the watershed. 


Other partners played key roles in delivery assistance through EWP. Western States Reclamation was a company experienced with wildfire recovery in the region that committed to hiring local crews to harvest burned trees to mulch so that no foreign materials were put back on the land. The Curtis and Curtis Seed Company, a New Mexico company and decades-long partner with NRCS NM, was able to harvest native grass seeds not far from the actual burn scar for the aerial seeding operation to ensure the burned land was seeded with grasses native to the region. Aerotech, another local New Mexican company employed a fleet of GPS-guided aircraft and highly skilled pilots to drop the mulch and seed back on the land with precision. Crews on the ground and in the air operated around the clock until early November when winter conditions halted the first round of aerial seeding and mulching. At the end of the first seeding phase in 2022, NRCS NM and partners were able to seed over 23,000 acres and mulch over 8,000 acres. This would represent the first phase of what would evolve into a three-phase strategy for implementing EWP for Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon (HPCC) disaster assistance. 

A closeup of two handfuls of soil with grass seedlings sprouted.
Within 7-10 days the seed began to germinate.
Aerial View of seeded vs unseeded land
An aerial view showing the results of un-seeded land vs. seeded land. Seeding is a successful post-wildfire conservation practice that helps reduce soil erosion, restore ground cover, and establish native plant species.
Once barren and burned, forest land covered in green grasses.
The seed mix consisted of 40% Winter Wheat (Cool Season Annual), 40% Cereal Rye (Cool Season Annual, 15% Western Wheat Grass (Cool Season Native Perennial), 5% Blue Grama (Warm Season Native Perennial)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Next Phase

Starting that fall of 2022 and continuing through the winter, NRCS began the second phase of EWP which consisted of installing point protection structures to protect homes and structures from more flooding in the event that heavy rain fell on the burn scar. At first, NRCS utilized jersey barriers. But then a better solution was found with flood barrier bags, which were lighter and easier to deploy, cheaper, and an all-around much more agile solution that could be put in place quickly at scale. Other flood protection measures included debris removal, pit ponds, and earth diversions. NRCS engineers and local contractors worked tirelessly across over 80 sites throughout the winter of 2022 and through the summer of 2023. 

Flood Barrier Bags Protect a House From Flooding
Flood Barrier Bags Protect a Home. Here they are replacing sandbags that did not work. 
Flood Barrier Bags Protecting a Well House
The Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program is meant to protect home and structures. Here, Flood Barrier Bags are protecting a well house. 
Debris Removal
Other EWP flood protection measures included debris removal. Here a culvert filled and clogged by flooding is cleared out. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NRCS NM was also actively looking for other ways to help the affected communities. In the early spring of 2023, John “Cyle” Sharp and Paula Gutierrez, were hired by the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Claims Office (HPCCO). Both were fellow New Mexicans and had worked with NRCS NM before in their former professions. They reached out to NRCS NM and began working closely with Kenneth Branch, ASTC for Programs, Kenneth Alcon, former State Resource Conservationist, and Xavier Montoya, State Conservationist. The group worked together to come up with a plan that they presented to their agencies and was approved. 

A group stands in a field
Staff from the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Claims Office and NRCS NM partnered up to figure out better ways to compensate claimants.


After some serious vetting, mock trials, and some help from the New Mexico State University’s Ag Economics program, through Dr. Lillywhite, to develop a payment schedule that reflects 100% of the cost, USDA NRCS and FEMA’s HPCCO were able to make an agreement in which NRCS NM could provide landowners a Conservation Restoration Plan written by certified planners using established NRCS conservation practices which could streamline the compensation process for claimants on their natural resources. Claimants could request a Conservation Restoration Plan from NRCS and NRCS would visit their property to provide an estimate that claimants could take to the Claim’s Office for compensation. The Conservation Restoration Plans documents damages to natural resources including costs to repair/restore the damage and implementation specifications. FEMA and USDA announced the agreement on May 22, 2023, and immediately began accepting requests. 


To meet the overwhelming demand that would come with providing Conservation Restoration Plans, NRCS NM needed to dramatically increase its capacity in the area. NRCS NM required all of their employees to contribute at least two weeks to help write Conservation Restoration Plans. Many employees were inspired to stay longer and volunteered to extend their details to contribute to the recovery effort. A core of 12 NRCS NM staff stayed on assignment from May to October. Eddie Foster, South Area Resource Conservationist acted as the group lead for the operations on the ground. Work on Conservation Restoration Plans went 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Throughout this time, teams of NRCS staff and partners also continued work on EWP, seeding, and point protection work. Staff remained on assignment until winter once again halted operations.   

At the end of calendar year 2023, NRCS NM had completed and delivered 642 out of 914 received applications requesting Conservation Restoration Plans. That represented over 100,000 acres and over $450,000,000 in losses documented. Approximately $130 Million of work was completed and paid through EWP, which included aerial seeding (50,000 acres) and mulching (30,000 acres), flood barrier protection, sediment catchments, earth diversions, and debris removal, across 165 sites.

NRCS Staff Reviews Paperwork outside on a landowners property
HPCC Group Lead, Eddie Foster delivers a Conservation Restoration Plan.
Group Shot
NRCS NM crew often worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Forward

Starting in 2023 and going into 2024, NRCS NM is continuing to expand its recovery assistance for HPCC by implementing a third phase of its EWP program to work on Acequias affected by the HPCC fire and flooding. NRCS NM is working with the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration (DFA), the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT), the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts (NMACD), the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, (SWCDs), the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA), and contractors to coordinate work on over 60 Acequia Projects. Most Acequias need engineering assistance which will be completed by NMACD or NRCS NM. NRCS NM is also working with the US Forest Service to jointly implement projects on Acequias that start on USFS lands.  

A group stands outside above an acequia.
NRCS NM assesses a damaged Acequia.


NRCS NM is also looking towards providing assistance on a longer-term basis through its watershed operations. NRCS NM started the Preliminary Investigative Findings Report (PIFR) process with the New Mexico Acequia Association as the sponsor. Normally a PIFR takes 12 or more months to complete. Working overtime, and with the help of Merceidez Fabok, a NRCS Natural Resource Specialist from Nebraska, NRCS NM was able to complete this process in about three months. Once the PIFR is reviewed by NHQ, NRCS NM will move on to the planning phase which could take 2-3 years. NRCS NM hopes to complete this in 1-2 years. 


As the next spring and summer quickly approaches, NRCS NM is eager to continue supporting the communities affected by this devasting fire. 
 

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