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Corrales Bosque Fire

Smoke from the Corrales Bosque Fire pours into Placitas. Photo credit: Barb Belknap

Explanation tries to quell doubts over Corrales Bosque Fire

—Jeff Radford, Corrales Comment

Suspicions continued to circulate that the true cause of the bosque fire last month has not been disclosed.

Some villagers are unconvinced that the official statement on the origin of the wildfire—a dropped electronic cigarette falling into highly combustible cottonwood seed—reflects the real cause.

But Village Administrator John Avila insists the doubts and “venomous” attacks in the aftermath of the fire are unwarranted.

The Corrales Police Department’s investigation found, “There is no evidence to indicate that actions or inactions committed by individuals were reckless and/or careless.”

Investigating officers said they “were unable to locate or make a determination on a specific ignition source based upon examination of the fire origin scene. The fire was determined to be human-caused with no clear ignition source(s) identified.”

But that conclusion does not match well the explanation given by John Avila who said July 10 that a Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) employee on fire watch patrol June 20 admitted he had accidentally started the bosque wildfire when an electronic cigarette fell out of his pocket onto a fluffy bed of cottonwood seeds.

The police report and Avila’s statements have, perhaps deliberately, left open the possibility that the bosque fire might have started by some other means. As the police report notes, “It cannot be confirmed and proven a second fire was on the east side of the river prior to the start of the Corrales fire, however the possibility does exist a second fire was active prior to this incident.”

Liability issues are almost certain to be involved in the findings. For example, would Village government be responsible for damages from the runaway fire on Sandia Pueblo lands east of the river? Will the Village have to pay the heavy costs incurred in fighting the June 20 blaze?

Doubts and controversy over that statement of probable cause stirred debate over supper tables in Corrales and sparked heated debates at the post office. An electronic cigarette (e-cigaret) cannot start a fire, some villagers argued. They don’t get hot even with intensive use, some said.

Corrales Fire Chief Anthony Martinez said he had researched the fire hazard from e-cigarets through the internet and discovered at least some corroboration for assertions that the devices can ignite fires.

Once the dropped e-cigaret apparently ignited cottonwood seed, the YCC team attempted to stamp out or smother the fire, the fire chief said. “They tried to gather all the cotton as quickly as they could to keep it away from the fire, but they said they were totally surrounded by fire.”

“They called dispatch and advised them of the fire and attempted to prevent the spread of the fire until units arrived on the scene to support that.

By the time we arrived on scene…some of us were at the fire station and I was coming down from a meeting in Rio Rancho and I could see it growing and growing and growing. When I arrived I established incident command and put all my forces on trying to keep that fire from spreading south of the (bosque entrance) trail or to the west.”

When the first mutual aid pumper team arrived from Rio Rancho, Martinez assigned it to protecting structures near the end of Railcar Road. “That was the immediate threat.”

To the north, he knew the fire would probably be stopped by the wide mouth of the Harvey Jones Flood Control Channel which has been considered a significant strategic fuel break. “But the one thing that was beyond my control was the fire spreading to the island and from the island (in the Rio Grande) to Sandia.

You can see that the island close to Corrales burned first and then on over.” The fire chief said.

Even so, Martinez noted, there may have been a fire already going on the other side of the river before or around the same time as the fire starting here. “There were reports of smoke somewhere in the general vicinity, unknown what side of the river, earlier in the day.”

Village Administrator Avila said he spotted smoke that seemed to be coming from the bosque earlier in the day. “I was driving to a meeting earlier that day, and I saw a column of smoke maybe ten feet high north of Alameda and west of Second Street. I didn’t know what it was.”

Corrales Comment asked why Village officials didn’t reveal the electronic-cigaret cause of the fire here until nearly a week later since it was known immediately. The UCC person who dropped the device reported what had happened.

Avila replied: “There was an investigation going on, first of all, and we’re not supposed to divulge what we might know about that issue. Secondly, we wanted to let them (investigators) discover, hopefully with one hundred-percent certainty, what the cause was.”

The fire chief summed up his viewpoint on the June 20 fire. “It was an unfortunate event, but here the Fire Department is trying to be real aggressive in trying to promote safety in our bosque. We know our bosque is the jewel of Corrales and we try to protect it as best we can. We patrol the bosque almost daily throughout the year whenever we can. We don’t just look for fires; we’re out there talking to fishermen; we’re educating about how the river can be dangerous.

And here we have some individuals – not juveniles – who had gotten the basic wild land fire training and were out there in the bosque trying to protect it. It wasn’t like we were sending kids out there who didn’t know what they were doing. My point is that it was an unfortunate event. They meant no harm, but it was ‘wrong place, wrong time.’

Martinez said he hopes to begin a public educational effort to alert villagers to the high flammability of cottonwood seed clusters. He intends to explore how in the future industrial-style sprinklers might be deployed along the edges of the preserve to wet down accumulations of cottonwood seed during its high season.

He plans to call public meetings this fall or winter to educate the public on how to better protect homes from what seem to be faster spreading wildfires.

The June 20 bosque fire has sparked new pressure to create more fuel breaks (fire breaks) in the preserve.

In the aftermath of the June 20 bosque fire, other villagers are rallying to address problems that arose over communicating about the need (or lack of need) for community or neighborhood evacuation in the event of such fires.

Some villagers complained that the community had no evacuation plan, and when they learned that, in fact, such plans have been in effect for more than five years, the problem was re-defined as lack of communication about the plan and how citizenry would be notified to implement it.


What to do about potential wildfire in Placitas

—Michael Crofoot

It has been said that the fire seasons in New Mexico this year and last year have been the most severe in a long time. The dangers of wildfire in the Placitas area are of rising concern. This year our Placitas Volunteer Fire Brigade went on 81 fire runs from January to June. Most were false alarms, but some of these fire calls could have become the “Big One” if our Volunteer Fire Brigade had not been there to put the fire out. Many Placitaños may also remember the roadside fire in the S curves last year, possibly started by a careless smoker. The fire had burned somewhere around a quarter acre when the Fire Brigade came to put it out. That could have been the “Big One.” One longtime local professional forester says that it is not if there is going to be a wildfire in the Placitas area, possibly burning right up the Sandia Mountain, but when there is such a wildfire in Placitas.

Fortunately, there is a national program called Firewise, located on the web at Firewise.org, which is helping many people and communities around the U.S. cooperatively work towards greater safety from wildfires. This is a voluntary effort built around outreach and education to help individual home owners modify their landscapes and homes towards making defensible space against the destructiveness of wildfire, and to come together in community projects to try to lessen the wildfire dangers. Part of the Firewise approach is encouraging concerned folks to band together and form Firewise Communities. There is much Firewise literature and CDs available for free at Firewise.org, including step-by-step workshop books toward forming Firewise Communities.

A diverse new group in Placitas is bringing the Firewise approach, in all its fullness, to our area. We are beginning the process by undertaking the formation of a Placitas Firewise Steering Committee made up of representatives of local organizations including the Las Placitas Association, representatives from some of the Home Owners Associations, members of our two churches, Neighborhood Watch members, the Pathways Wildlife Corridor folks, Resilience Placitas, and others. This core group is intended to help lay the ground work for arranging a series of public Firewise meetings in Placitas, hopefully beginning this fall.

Representatives from several groups met in the Collins Room of our Placitas Community Library on July 17. Dave Bervin, Sandoval County’s Emergency Manager Assistant Chief, spoke about the many ways that the County Fire Department would contact Placitas-area residents in the event of a big wildfire, what they would do to help evacuate Placitans and much more.

Community and neighborhood groups in the Placitas area are invited to send one to three representatives from their organization to a second Firewise Steering Committee meeting, which will again be at the Placitas Community Library on August 21 at 7:00 p.m. The key word here is “representative.” We hope to have at the meeting more local activists representing organizations or groups who are prepared to work cooperatively to help the Firewise approach take root here in our beautiful Placitas area. We anticipate that coming out of this Placitas Firewise Steering Committee there will be a series of public meetings and in-the-field events and activities in the near future for those who are interested or curious about the Firewise program.

At the August 21 meeting, there will be a talk by Dan Ware, the Fire Prevention and Outreach Program Manager for the NM State Forestry Division. We also hope to have a representative from the Firewise group in a neighboring community who can speak to their experience of getting the program up and running. Following the talks there will be discussion about the best ways to bring a strong Firewise program to the Placitas area and then we will begin planning more public Firewise events.

To RSVP for the August 21 meeting, or for further information, contact lppcaa@lasplacitaschurch.org. Those interested should go to the Firewise.org website to get more familiar with the Firewise Communities approach. It is important that we take steps towards making the Placitas area safer in the face of a possible catastrophic wildfire.


BLM draft RMP impacts Placitas open space

—Las Placitas Association

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has finally released the Draft Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Rio Puerco Field Office. This covers a large area in central New Mexico, including Sandoval County. There are three BLM parcels in the Placitas Area.

The draft RMP does not address vehicle use in the BLM lands, such as off-road vehicles (ORVs), other than the mention motorized traffic on the Crest of Montezuma. The BLM’s intention is to formulate a Transportation Management Plan only after the RMP is finalized.

Factors that the BLM must take into account when formulating their RMPs include social and economic concerns. Clearly mining of any sort close to towns and communities such as Bernalillo and Placitas strongly raises these concerns, since such activity can affect health, quality of life, and property values. Also, if resource development in the BLM lands curtails or prevents recreational activities there, then this affects social and economic conditions in the area, so public comments could productively focus on the social and economic impacts of mining and other development activities.

The following describes only the draft RMP “Preferred Alternatives” for three Placitas parcels:

Parcel A, 3,500 acres north of Placitas, would be “managed as controlled surface use for extraction of leasable fluid minerals, open to extraction of salable minerals and locatable mineral entry.” The term leasable fluid minerals refers to oil and natural gas, along with other fluids. Salable minerals include sand and gravel. Locatable minerals include gold, silver, and uranium, among other minerals. The preferred alternative opens only two sections in the Placitas Area to the mining of gravel and other solid minerals.

The preferred alterative for Parcel B, a two-hundred acre parcel bordering Overlook, Cedar Creek, and Ranchos de Placitas, calls for “Land Ownership Adjustment,” and would be subject to transfer of ownership to other public or private entities. Parcel B is a favorite place for hikers.

The preferred alternative for Parcel C, the Crest of Montezuma, opens the door to the possibility of transferring the Crest to the Forest Service, as per HR 491 sponsored by Representative Martin Heinrich, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a unanimous vote. Presently, we are awaiting the bill’s introduction in the U.S. Senate. If it passes there, and the President signs the bill, then the Crest will transfer to the Forest Service. However, if this transfer does not occur then the BLM preferred alternative  opens the Crest to oil and gas extraction, but not to salable or locatable mineral extraction, and also allows motorized travel along existing roads and trails.

Here are some of the issues of concern to residents in Placitas, Bernalillo, and other surrounding communities:

Oil and Gas Extraction: opening lands to oil and gas extraction can cause leaks into aquifers. This can occur even with mere exploration for oil and gas reserves. The aquifers under the BLM lands service both Placitas and Bernalillo, among other areas. The Preferred Alternative for the Crest of Montezuma allows for oil and gas extraction. Preventing this is a strong reason to push for transfer of the Crest to the Forest Service. The draft RMP indicates that there is one oil and gas lease near Placitas and there have been other explorations. So it is a real possibility that oil and gas exploration, and possibly extraction, would occur in the Placitas Area if it were allowed for in the RMP.

Gravel Mining: only Sections 13 and 18 in Parcel A would be open for gravel mining under the “Preferred Alternative.” Section 13 is a half mile or more from Placitas private lands, but parts of Section 18 are closer to private lands. The community may seek to eliminate such mining entirely in the BLM lands, or to limit it only to areas a sufficient distance from private lands.

Wild Horses: during the initial comment period for the RMP, many residents of Placitas and elsewhere submitted comments requesting that Parcel A be turned into a Wild Horse Preserve, or otherwise protect the horse herds that roam through there. The BLM ruled that these comments were “out of scope,” meaning that they could not be taken into account when formulating the RMP. However, Section 2.4.2 of the draft RMP, titled “Wild Horse Preserve, Sanctuary, State Park, or Herd Management Area Alternative,” explicitly addresses this issue. It rejects the existence of wild horses within the Rio Puerco Planning Area, including the Placitas Area. It states that “the feral and unclaimed horses in the Planning Area are trespassing on BLM-administered lands, are not a part of the BLM’s inventory or management program as a result of the Wild Horse Act, and will not be considered as a part of the BLM’s resource management program in this RMP/EIS process.” By including this section in the draft RMP, the BLM seems to be placing the issue of the Placitas horse herds within scope, and thus comments could appropriately be addressed towards this issue.

The full draft RMP, along with maps, can be viewed on the Las Placitas Association web site, at http://lasplacitas.org/rio_puerco/index.php. The hard copy can also be viewed at the Placitas Community Library.

When finalized the RMP will determine how these lands will be managed for the next twenty years.  Now that the draft RMP has been released, there is a ninety-day public comment period ending on October 11, 2012. After that the BLM will finalize the RMP, based largely on the inputs it receives.  This will be our last opportunity to affect the outcome of the plan, so everyone concerned should attend meetings and submit comments to the BLM. Comments that will be most effective are those that challenge data submitted with the draft RMP, and/or provide relevant data missing in that document.  They may be submitted electronically at: NM_RPFO_Comments@blm.gov, or by mail to: Bureau of Land Management, Attention:  Angel Martinez, 435 Montaño Road NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87107. For questions about the planning process, please contact Angel Martinez, Rio Puerco Field Office RMP Team Lead, at 505-761-8918.

BLM will hold a number of public meetings within the ninety-day comment period.  The one for Sandoval County will be held on September 17, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., at the Bernalillo High School Gym. LPA (Las Placitas Association) is working with other community groups to organize a Community Meeting in Placitas before the BLM public meeting. The purpose of this Community Meeting will be to provide information, to discuss the main issues, and to provide instruction on how to submit productive, substantive comments to the BLM.  The date of this Public Meeting is yet to be determined. It will be published in the next Signpost, and also notification will be sent to members of LPA and other local community organizations.

To participate in this discussion, and for updates and announcements, please visit the ES-CA (Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association) Forum at: www.es-ca.org/blog/2012/07/05/blm -resource-management-plan-rmp-published/. By pressing “Leave a Reply,” you can post comments.


Bernalillo demands payment of delinquent water bills

Signpost staff

Last month, the Bernalillo town administration sent out letters to 707 of the utility’s 3,245 water customers whose accounts are two or more months delinquent. The overdue bills amount to around two million dollars. The letter advised the recipients to contact the town’s Water Department to make a repayment contract. The town offered to forgive penalty and interest if customers keep with the payment plan and keep current on monthly bills. Customers with past-due accounts will have their water shut off on August 31, 2012, if they do not make a repayment contract. There is a reconnection fee of twenty-five dollars.

Interim Town Administrator Ida Fierro said that the town council approved an amnesty program about a year-and-a-half ago that offered to waive penalties for customers who were behind on bills. At the time, the town was also owed about two million dollars by more than three hundred water utility customers. Fierro said that the town did not shut off anyone’s water even though two hundred of the three hundred delinquent customers are still behind in payments. This time they mean business.

For contract arrangements, call Juan Torres, finance director, 771-7138, or Ida Fierro, town clerk, 771-7128.


Mariposa problems persist

—Ty Belknap

The Mariposa Community Association convened a general meeting on July 19 to discuss the budget that has been adopted for the association for Fiscal Year 2013. The dues for the association members remain at $55 per month, the same as Fiscal Year 2012. These funds will pay for basic maintenance (grass cutting etc.). The Mariposa Community Center building suspended normal operations on July 9 and will remain closed until some resolution is reached.

Members of the association are still expressing disappointment with the High Desert Investment Corporation (HDIC) for walking away from the $16 Mariposa Public Improvement District (PID) debt in June—many feel they were dealt with unethically. It came an unpleasant surprise to many that, by contract, the homeowners may face a ten-fold increase in property tax.

Gary Gordon of HDIC said, “HDIC continues to work towards a solution of the Public Improvement District problem that has caused HDIC to cease operations. Negotiations with third-parties regarding the PID as well as the potential sale of HDIC are ongoing, but all of that will take some time.”

HDIC is an independent corporation set up to help fund Albuquerque Academy (AA).

On June 27, Andrew T. Watson, AA Head of School, wrote Mayor Swisstack and Rio Rancho City Councilors, “We hope that Mariposa will have a stronger financial base once current conversations help reorganize the financial model. From what I understand, those involved in High Desert (and other parties) are bringing their best ideas to the table. Completely contrary to what some may believe, however, the Academy does not have the financial capacity to fix the central problem through continued investment. The PID has an assessed land value that is approximately one-sixth of what was projected by all involved, including bond underwriters, PID administrators, city officials, market specialists and HDIC, when the bonds were issued in 2006. It is my understanding that the PID is only generating about one-sixth of the projected tax revenues. This is not a problem that can be blamed on any single entity or person, but rather upon the great recession that was primarily fueled by the mortgage debt crisis. Similarly, the problem is far too large to be remedied by a single entity.”

Meanwhile, Rio Rancho City Manager James Jimenez was “forcefully retired” in July by the City Council. Three new councilors clashed with Jemenez over several issues, including development policies. Curiously, they want to double down on efforts to attract developers by reducing or eliminating impact fees developers pay the city for roads, sewer, and water infrastructure.

Jemenez was also chairman of the PID who was working on the Mariposa crisis.

 
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