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Matt Dahlseid/The New Mexican

To gauge how much moisture is in the soil, Española District Ranger Sandy Hurlocker crouches down May 27 to dig a small hole in the ash and topsoil of the high-severity burn area of the Medio Fire.

RÍO EN MEDIO

The day after a strong storm produced nearly a half-inch of rain and quarter-sized hail in parts of the greater Santa Fe area, John Kadlecek saw something unsettling flowing down Río en Medio in place of the clear waters that normally trickle past his home.

"It looked like liquid tar, almost like an oil spill," said Kadlecek, who has lived in the village of Río en Medio for nearly a decade. "It even had kind of a slimy, bubbly surface."

The first significant rain since the Medio Fire burned 4,000 acres in Santa Fe National Forest in August 2020, the May 22 storm brought down evidence of the instability upstream.

In high-severity burn areas along the popular Río en Medio Trail No. 163, which has remained closed since the lightning-caused fire, lush vegetation along the cascading stream has been replaced by an eerie scene of dead and blackened trees rising out of an ashy moonscape.

With no ground cover to keep the topsoil in place on the steep hillsides, the unstable area creates several big question marks for recreationists, U.S. Forest Service personnel, and especially the residents who live downstream as the summer monsoon approaches.

"There will be a lot of movement through here in the next couple of years," Micah Kiesow said as he walked through the burn scar along Río en Medio recently. "This whole area will be rearranging itself."

The coordinator of the Burned Area Emergency Response team for Santa Fe National Forest, Kiesow published a report in October that evaluated the post-fire conditions of the landscape and detailed the level of risk from potential flooding and debris flows to assets on Forest Service lands.

Science-based modeling included in the assessment highlights the potential for upheaval.

The report indicates the possibility of soil erosion rates upward of 40 tons per acre on the steep slopes of the high-severity burn areas.

It's also estimated the stream's flow rate following a high-intensity, short-duration storm typical of a monsoon could be five times greater than what the same amount of rain would have resulted in prior to the fire.

The elevated risk of flood, erosion and falling dead trees means area residents will be unable to hike the idyllic Río en Medio Trail while the area remains under a closure order through at least the end of September, when the rainy season ends, and likely into next year, according to forest officials.

The trailhead's notoriously tiny parking area at the end of Santa Fe County Road 78B was barricaded last week, and new signs have been posted to warn of the closure.

Those who attempt to drive the one-lane road will run into a dead-end with no parking and no space to turn around. And those who enter the closure area without authorization could be fined up to $5,000 and imprisoned for up to six months.

"We need all the people who value the national forest to listen when we put a warning out, and heed it," said Sandy Hurlocker, district ranger for Santa Fe National Forest's Española District. "We don't do these closures lightly. We have a real hazard and we will lift it as soon as we're reasonably certain that it's not posing as big of a hazard as it is right now."

Hurlocker said about three miles of the trail were affected by the fire, from above the signature 20-foot waterfall two miles from the trailhead to just below the Aspen Ranch Trailhead along Forest Road 412.

Thanks to the timing of the fire and the ability of crews to contain the blaze before it spread more widely through the canyon, there's a rare opportunity to attempt to stabilize areas of the watershed and potentially reduce the risk of hazards.

Kiesow said most fires in the Southwest occur in June and July. Monsoon storms then help put out fires, but they also tend to cause tremendous erosion to streams in the newly burned areas.

Because the Medio Fire occurred late in the fire season and there were no big deluges to slough off the loose granitic soils from the steep hillsides, there's a rare window to attempt a post-fire, pre-flood restoration effort to try to mitigate the damage of upcoming monsoon events.

"We know what will happen if we don't do anything. We could get a rainstorm, and all of the sudden you get the head cuts and things are gone," Hurlocker said. "But if we can do some of this stream stabilization as proposed, we could get a leg up and avoid some of those bad effects that are kind of normal here and almost unavoidable."

In the past two weeks, fluvial geomorphologist Steve Vrooman and his team with Keystone Restoration Ecology in Santa Fe have begun work to implement a plan to stabilize the channel.

They're strategically placing structures of stone and logs found in the area to help the stream hold its shape. Their plan also includes planting willows and cottonwoods to diminish erosion.

Vrooman said almost all of his previous watershed restoration work had come at least three or four years after a fire when flooding in the delicate landscapes resulted in severe gully erosion.

A quick turnaround in receiving permits and grant money for the project have allowed him to get to Río en Medio much sooner.

As fire seasons across the West grow longer and more intense due to climate change, Vrooman said he hopes land management plans allow for more rapid responses like this to help streams recover more quickly.

"Most of the long-lasting damage after a fire is to streams," said Vrooman, whose team will be working on-site until the monsoon begins in July. "Forests regenerate, but I don't think stream damage has to be inevitable. We don't have to sit there and watch it happen."

Nature has already begun some of the work along Río en Medio.

The steady spring storms of the past few weeks have helped gradually purge the system of loose sediment. They've also coaxed some life to sprout from the black slopes in the form of grasses, forbs, oak and aspen.

Still, Kiesow said it could take three to five years in some of the burn areas before there's a sense of what vegetation will take hold and the soil begins to stabilize.

The residents of the village below remain concerned by the flood threat.

Kadlecek said there's a community well that serves about 55 households that's just 5 feet from the stream that would be at risk in the event of a flood. His home along the stream also is one of the most vulnerable.

One thing residents have been relieved of, however, is a flood of visitors blocking their road.

With capacity for only about four or five vehicles at the Río en Medio Trailhead, hikers would park along the narrow one-lane road, preventing access for emergency vehicles.

Kadlecek called last spring an "absolute nightmare" as pandemic-weary people swarmed the area, creating massive bottlenecks along the road and leaving large amounts of trash in their wake.

Santa Fe County has since put up signs to warn visitors that vehicles parked along the side of the road or blocking driveways will be towed, which Kadlecek said improved the situation.

The Medio Fire has been a sort of reset button on the issues at the trailhead. Hurlocker said now is the time to come together to try to devise a solution before the trail reopens.

"This gives us some breathing room," Hurlocker said. "We have the hazards there and we need to close the trailhead, but we're not going to keep it closed longer than what we need to to deal with the hazards. We've got this year, and I would throw the invitation out to the community - let's try to figure something out."

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