Global Catastrophe Risk Events: Fires and Floods Here in New Mexico

By KAY MATTHEWS

In a recent Naked Capitalism post meteorologist Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground (not the one that jumps to mind for those of us over 60) provides the World Health Organization’s definition of global catastrophe with extreme effects: “an extreme event that kills more that 10 million people or causes over $10 trillion in damage.” Since 1900 those events have been the two world wars and the influenza and COVID-19 pandemics. The he writes: “But human activity is ‘creating greater and more dangerous risk’ and increasing the odds of global catastrophic risk events, by increasingly pushing humans beyond nine “planetary boundaries” of environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate, warns a recent United Nations report, “Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction – Our World at Risk: Transforming Governance for a Resilient Future” (GAR2022) and its companion paper, “Global catastrophic risk and planetary boundaries: The relationship to global targets and disaster risk reduction” (see July post, “Recklessness defined: breaking 6 of 9 planetary boundaries of safety”).”

This is the depiction of those nine planetary boundaries:

 

Masters then lists the Possible Global Catastrophic Risk Events. Under the category of “Unintended Consequences” is this break down: Pandemic, Artificial Intelligence, High Energy Physics Experiments, Social Collapse, Climate Change. I italicize climate change although any of the other things on the list are plenty to worry about in this stunningly complex time we’re living. But this article will focus on what’s happening in northern New Mexico due to the increased temperatures driven by carbon emissions.

In mid April, after the Hermits Peak Fire and the Calf Canyon Fire came together to create a mega 360,000 acre fire in San Miguel and Mora counties, heart breaking photos and videos of the affected forests and communities were posted daily on Facebook. Then in mid June, when the early monsoon season unleashed drenching rain storms over the burned areas we began to see photos and videos of all the creeks and rivers flooding their banks onto roads, fields, and houses. It’s now the first of August and the flooding hasn’t abated.

This is the Flash Flood Warning issued by the U.S. National Weather Service on August 1st for the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire area:

This has been an almost daily occurrence for weeks now. Photos posted on Facebook show dark, ash filled water flowing over roads, wrecking bridges, flooding fields, washing away sheds and dog houses, and overflowing sand bags surrounding houses.

The following photos are of Tera Ann Martinez’s property in Mora:

Water flowing over sandbags by the house.  Photo by Tera Ann Martinez
Photo by Tera Ann Martinez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Floating propane tank. Photo by Tera Ann Martinez.

On July 29, Paula Garcia, Executive Director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, posted this: July 29. The Mora River peaked at about 400cfs last night about 1-2am at La Cueva which means it probably peaked in Mora around 11pm-12am. Our neighbors removed two big logs from the bridge so that it would not flood.

Martin Duran sent this video of the Rio Mora on July 29.

 

The Calf Canyon-Hermit’s Peak-Inclusive Support Group on Facebook shares important information about the fire and the subsequent flooding: flash flood warnings; who to contact for emergency help; where to apply for funding (including FEMA); Post Fire Land Restoration Workshops; and the status of roads and rivers in the area. The communities may be devastated but they are resilient.

While the fire primarily burned on the east side of the Sangre de Cristos, the communities on the west side of the Sangres didn’t escape damage. More than 14,000 acres of the Rio Embudo Watershed burned in the Hermit’s Peak Calf Canyon Fire: Alamitos Creek, Rito Angostura, and Rito de la Presa (La Junta Canyon), all tributaries of the Rio Pueblo, which flows into the Rio Embudo.

On June 25, Karen Cohen and Robert Templeton sent me pictures of the flooding Rio Embudo in Dixon.

Rio Embudo. Photo by Robert Templeton.
The sagging gabions from where the river jumped the bank.
Rio Embudo in Dixon flooding a road.

The flood severely damaged several of the Dixon acequias. The Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association Water Quality Committee put together a resource link to help acequia mayordomos and commissioners monitor the Rio Pueblo and Rio Embudo flows at the USGS flow gages. It also includes a map of the river system and affected area. All surface water within the heavy red boundary line flows downhill to Embudo from both sides of Jicarita Peak and from the north side of Chimayosos Peak. The southeast edge of the watershed ranges in elevation from 9,500 feet to 12,600 feet. The outlet at Embudo where the Rio Embudo joins the Rio Grande is at about 5850 feet.

Here’s a graph of the Rio Pueblo and Rio Embudo flows:

A new book was published this week, Hothouse Earth, by Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London. It’s not an encouraging read and I don’t want to go into his doomsday predictions in detail, but this is one of the things he says:

Wildfires of unprecedented intensity and ferocity have also [he talks about unprecedented fires in London as well] swept across Europe, North America and Australia this year, while record rainfall in the midwest led to the devastating flooding in the US’s Yellowstone national park. “And as we head further into 2022, it is already a different world out there,” he adds. “Soon it will be unrecognisable [sic] to every one of us.

“These changes underline one of the most startling aspects of climate breakdown: the speed with which global average temperature rises translate into extreme weather.”

That’s what we’re living with in New Mexico right now, but as I’ve written previously, we need to forge ahead with all the work being done to make our forests and watersheds more resilient. The Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council got an exemption from a closure to proceed with our forest restoration project between El Valle and Las Trampas the week before the Camino Real Ranger District reopened for people to recreate and cut firewood. On July 29, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R 5118, The Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act that will expand the scope of forest management and hazardous fuels reduction projects (of course it has to pass the Senate).

There’s bad news, too, though. The Santa Fe National Forest is putting the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project of thousands of acres near the Santa Fe Watershed on hold supposedly because of the commitment of the work force to the Hermit’s Peak Calf Canyon Fire and the 90 day moratorium on prescribed burning. But there was no consultation with all the partners who’ve been working with the Santa Fe NF on this project and it needlessly suspends the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) work already accomplished. Seems to me the translation here is political pressure. If it’s coming from the folks who’ve been fighting against all the previous thinning and burning in the Santa Fe Watershed then we’re heading backwards once again. We can’t afford that. The Forest Service made grievous  mistakes that caused the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire—its intent was commendable but its execution was flawed. But we can’t lose sight of the way forward.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for the map – it’s hard to find maps of watersheds. Whoever named the Rio Embudo certainly got it right: the gorge below Dixon narrows to under 50 yards at one point, draining this huge area. This is why the US Army Corps of Engineers selected this valley as a dam site around 1900. But we should be happy – and accept regular floods and screwed -up land titles – that they changed their mind and we still get to live in this beautiful land of mountains and valleys.

  2. I mostly want to thank you for your La Jicarita posts. Great newsletter. I especially appreciate all your maps and charts. And of course the photos (for those of us not on Facebook or other social media).

    Just a minor editing detail: when you were quoting Bill McQuire, you put a [sic] after “recognisable.” This is the British spelling. It is correct and does not need the [sic].

    rec·og·niz·a·ble| ˌrekəɡˈnīzəb(ə)l | (British also recognisable)

    Regarding tree thinning, of course we know that the prescribed burns set these disastrous fires. While we should definitely not be aggressively fighting all natural caused fires in the forests, we also have to recognize that forest trees hold moisture in their bodies and in the ground. Cutting and burning large swaths of land will just make the land hotter and drier, increasingly potential for devastating fires. So far, the Forest Service has been anything but wise in how it “manages” the forest. So much of the ecological disaster that we are witnessing is due to the ignorance of humans who insist on “managing” all life on earth: for example, managing forests by considering the forests themselves as “fuels”, building dams and concrete “drainages” rather than sinking and storing water in the soil by restoring wetlands, etc. It’s always best to follow nature with its own living intelligence that far surpasses humans’ limited conceptual understanding. From a permaculture perspective, the more living biomass is present, the healthier and more resilient is the landscape. Rather than cut trees and prescribe fires, better to take the dead fuels and masticate them and return to the soil; this makes the soil more sponge-like, holding moisture. In addition to allowing trees to soak up more water content, this method will actually replenish springs and aquifers over time, bringing greater fire resiliency to the forest and mitigating for potential for the severe flooding and erosion you document so well. Also, the more water in the ground and in the plants, the more the micro-climate water pump cycle brings rain to the area. This is working with nature rather than trying to outwit nature which is insane, not to mention impossible.

    Thanks for listening. Arifa

    >

    • Some of us live in dread of the next fire. The tall piles of dry and now new green slash are set to be burned by Carson NF in Ojo Sarco. We don’t trust the FS to do the right thing. These piles and a fire racing through to Cañada del Oso is the fire that worries the me now. The minute the rains stop and those slash piles dry, the fire threat returns. This dangerous project should be redesigned for the slash to be masticated, scattered and/or removed. We came close to losing our watershed and potentially more in the Calf Canyon Hermit Peak fire, but the threat continues here.

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