Wildfire's aftermath: Water supply woes, economic damage

Cimarron area grappling with effects of spring Ute Park Fire

By Andrew Oxford aoxford@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 8/8/18

A crew armed with buckets and shovels trudged toward Cimarron's reservoir in late July to scoop away the muck that had accumulated in recent rains.All that …

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Wildfire's aftermath: Water supply woes, economic damage

Cimarron area grappling with effects of spring Ute Park Fire

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A crew armed with buckets and shovels trudged toward Cimarron's reservoir in late July to scoop away the muck that had accumulated in recent rains.

All that debris had threatened to block the flow of water that eventually makes its way to this northeastern New Mexico community of about 1,000 people.

And with the village no longer able to draw water from the Cimarron River as a result of a major wildfire this spring, the reservoir is all it has.

Despite the storms in this scorched part of the state, the area has faced the threat of going dry after the Ute Park Fire wreaked havoc on its water supply.

The Cimarron River had provided water for much of Colfax County, but communities now have to look elsewhere as monsoon rains send ashes and debris from the burn scar into its currents.

The flames of the Ute Park Fire, which burned around 37,000 acres in this rural part of the state, were extinguished in mid-June, but communities are still grappling with strained water systems, the prospect of flash flooding and the hit to tourism.

"Every time it rains, it just turns to black," Damian Casias, the village's public works supervisor, said of the Cimarron River, which had served as a water source for his village and for Springer and Raton.

Since the fire, Cimarron has had to rely on its reservoir, already low after a dry winter.

The community has put in place tough water restrictions. Watering lawns and washing cars are not allowed.

"People are starting to cut back," said Mayor Leo Martinez.

The prospect of hauling in water looks more remote, though some are not ruling it out yet. Donors have even contributed bottled water to the community.

But with rains and water restrictions still in place, Martinez said that up at the reservoir, "we're gaining little by little."

Still, it remains unclear how long communities will have to stick to sources of water besides the river.

Meanwhile, monsoon rains threaten to wash out roads and flood some areas that were threatened by the flames of the Ute Park Fire.

And then there is the economic damage.

The Ute Park Fire, which started in late May, did not destroy any homes. But it did burn several outbuildings at Philmont Scout Ranch west of Cimarron along with more than 26,000 acres on that property.

This time of year, the ranch ordinarily would host Boy Scout troops from around the country, but it has instead been forced to close its backcountry.

That means fewer travelers passing through the community.

Putting out a fire amounts to just a fraction of a fire's cost, according to a recent study by the think tank Headwaters Economics. The organization analyzed several major fires and found suppressing a fire averaged only 9 percent of its total cost.

The majority of a fire's costs come from long-term damage communities face in subsequent years and decades. These include depreciated property values, infrastructure repairs and the work of restoring battered ecosystems.

In Colfax County, officials hope for a longer-term federal grant through the Natural Resource Conservation Service to put conservation plans in place and prevent erosion in burned areas.

"Eventually this scar will heal itself," said James "Landon" Newton, vice chairman of the Colfax County Board of Commissioners, "but it may take a couple years or even longer."

In the meantime, he added, local communities are taking it day to day, week to week.

"We're doing pretty good," Newton said. "It could have been worse."

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