Sandoval Signpost
An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988
  Up Front

c. Rudi Klimpert


Dixon Orchard

The Dixon Apple Orchard sign—one of the few things left standing in Cochiti Canyon
since the Las Conchas fire and post-fire flooding.

Dixon Orchard damage

Dixon Orchard damage

Dixon Orchard damage

Dixon Orchard damage

Dixon Apple Orchard devastated by freeze, fire, and flood

—Ty Belknap

June 26, 2011, started off like just another hot summer day at Dixon Apple Orchard. Sure, there had been little rain for almost a year, and 95 percent of this year’s apple harvest was lost to a spring freeze, but there was plenty of work for owner Jim Mullane to do. With any luck, next year’s harvest would be good enough to draw the traditional caravan of fall apple buyers. His family still lived in the state-owned adobe house that had stood for many years in an idyllic setting amidst tall cottonwood and ponderosa pines. Cochiti Creek still flowed through the lush Cochiti Canyon into Rancho de Cañada, which the Mullane family leased from the State Land Office.

At about 1:30 p.m., Jim saw a plume of smoke. None of his neighbors knew what was happening, so he called a friend who worked for the B.L.M. who told him of a fire that had started 12 to 15 miles away, as the crow flies. It was a long way off, but the volunteer fire department came by to warn him that an evacuation order might be imminent.

Jim says, “Lots of friends came by to move valuables out of our house until about eight o’clock in the evening when the fire department came by again to tell us the fire was moving north of here.” At 11:00 p.m., Jim and a couple of friends rode their ATVs about six or seven miles up Cochiti Canyon and found a wall of flames that produced “a horrifying roar as loud as a 747.” Trees were exploding “like matchsticks.” He got out of there as fast as he could.

At 1:30 a.m., Jim drove out of the canyon far enough to see that the fire had reached the ridgeline above the ranch. It took another twenty minutes for “a total inferno that sucked what seemed like hurricane-force winds into the fire” to engulf the property. Jim turned on the irrigation pumps and sprinklers and escaped on a road through the back of the orchard.

He called his wife, Becky, who was vacationing in Minnesota, and watched the fire spread from a vantage point on the Dome Road. Ignoring warnings from sheriff deputies and the firefighters, Jim returned to the ranch around 4:00 a.m., after the fire had died down enough to fight with a water truck and tractor. Volunteer firefighters put the fire out at his house, but two other houses that were owned by the University of New Mexico were totally lost.

Jim spent the next day putting out fires. All but about 10 percent of the apple trees survived, along with barns, equipment, and a small log cabin. The orchard was surrounded by a scene of utter devastation.

Burned Area Emergency Response Teams (BAER) finally showed up a several days later, but only to use the ranch as a staging area in case they were needed elsewhere. The fire had reduced the Cochiti Watershed to a sooty wasteland of hydrophobic soil and rocks—twenty-seven miles of canyon, allowing monsoon rains to flow unimpeded through Dixon Apple Orchard. Twenty-five residences burned in the canyon, including the Mullane family cabin and the entire vacation community of Pines.

The Mullanes are critical of the Forest Service management, fire response, and lack of support in the aftermath. Becky Mullane said, “We have learned not to rely on the government for help. We tried for years to get the Forest Service to maintain the forest road and thin the forest, but they refused.” She also blames environmentalists for blocking forest thinning to save endangered species. “Where are the spotted owls and salamanders, now? They were incinerated along with the bears and squirrels and elk.”

Slurry bombers and Black Hawk helicopters were available for firefighting, but unused. Becky complains that the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest focuses on the other side of the mountain and neglects Cochiti. The entire community of Cochiti Lake remains devastated by the fire in its aftermath. The ghost town in Bland Canyon burned to the ground. The Forest Service has responded by closing the roads into Cochiti and Bland Canyons. Becky said that Forest Service officials have told property owners that the roads will never be repaired. When the monsoon flooding threatened, they told her they should just leave.

“But we can’t just leave,” she said. “The orchard has been in my family since 1944 when my grandparents came. We just have to go on faith that we belong here. We’ve had visits from Senator Bingaman and Udall, but no federal money has been made available. She said that they did get some state funding for heavy equipment to turn Cochiti Creek into a canal and line it with concrete Jersey barriers and sandbags. The flood-control devices were barely sufficient to channel away a half-an-inch of rainfall that fell during one storm.

“An inch of rain might wash away the orchard altogether,” she said. “If that happens, we might take it as a sign that it’s time to go.”

Meanwhile, the Mullane’s work hard every day in hopes of surviving the year. “Left foot, right foot, breath.” The three home-schooled children are getting a real-world education, especially in chainsaw operation. They moved into a travel trailer and remained surprisingly upbeat.

3 Advertising of Albuquerque designed tee-shirts to benefit the orchard and provided a web site for their sale at: www.friendsofdixon.com. One hundred percent of the proceeds go to the Mullane family to help get them back on their feet. The tee-shirt campaign provided enough funding to plant native seeds on the steep hills above the orchard and to hire chainsaw crews to cut burned trees and lay them down for erosion control.

Becky expressed thanks to loyal friends and customers. She says that this year’s harvest—only five percent of normal—will probably sell out in a day that has not yet been determined.

Several days after the Signpost interview for this story, two violent flash floods destroyed most of what was left of Dixon Apple Orchard. Between four and six inches of rain fell in the Jemez Mountains on August 21 and another two inches fell the next day. A six-foot wall of water, tree stumps, and boulders thundered down Cochiti Canyon, washing away or destroying everything in its path. State officials estimated the flow at 16,000 to 19,000 cubic feet per second. (Flow in the Rio Grande through Albuquerque is usually less that 1,000 cubic feet per second.)

It was apocalyptic. They moved anything of value, including the travel trailer, to higher ground. Becky sat in the shade beneath an old semi trailer, taking a break from her heartbreaking chores. She said that she is still “trying to get my head around” the enormity of what had been lost. She was not prepared to make any public statement about her family’s plans for the future. 

Apple trees that are still standing were severely damaged and will probably not survive. Several benefit events were quickly announced to help the Mullanes, but it looks like the orchard might be a goner. For more information, call 505-465-2976 or visit www.dixonsapples.com.


Town of Bernalillo receives emergency water service assistance from Rio Rancho, deals with well problem

—Signpost staff

On August 23, Mayor Jack Torres and the Bernalillo Town Council initiated emergency water restrictions due to the loss in operation of the Town’s primary drinking water well (Well #4) and the need to activate a mutual connection with the City of Rio Rancho. As of 5:00 p.m. that night, the Town’s system was operating at near normal water supply capacity with the use of the supplemental Town Well #3 and the service received from the City of Rio Rancho. The Town advised residents and businesses that they would continue to experience low water pressure until such time as the distribution system could be fully re-pressurized. 

The Town asked customers to assist in the re-pressurization of the system by turning on an outdoor water source to expel air from the system. Water customers were advised that when opening an outdoor faucet, they could expect to experience a rush of air, followed by sputtering water and to run the water until the sputtering stopped, and then turn the faucet off.

Per Ordinance No. 198, Water Conservation, Emergency Response and Drought Management Ordinance, the following mandatory restrictions were put in place:

  • No outside watering using Town of Bernalillo system water is permitted
  • Commercial car washes and laundries have been shut down
  • The Town of Bernalillo and Bernalillo Public Schools have discontinued watering parks, open space, and athletic fields
  • Use of water from fire hydrants is limited to fire-fighting, fire related activities, or other activities necessary to maintain the health, safety and welfare of customers served.

Acting Town Manager Maria Rinaldi said that Well #4 was being worked over, cleaned up, and the pump was being replaced. She said she expected Well #4 to be back on line by the last week in August, and that it would be “like a brand new well.”

The Town will continue to update its customers through public notifications and press releases as the situation develops.


Casa Rosa affected by national trend

—Betsy Model

Every day, consumers—and consumers of media—are bombarded with so many numbers and statistics that they can often become meaningless and begin to blur. From sport scores, to candidate polls, blasted from headlines and television commercials, the media is only too happy to inform you what product nine-out-of-ten doctors recommend to their patients.

Especially when numbers are related to faraway countries or are generated out of Wall Street or Capitol Hill, it can alternately feel unrelated to life in Sandoval County or, when it comes to national deficit dollars and cutbacks, nothing short of overwhelming—numbing even—and easy to tune out as we deal with day-to-day priorities.

So why should residents in New Mexico and Sandoval County pay particular attention to some of the data concerning epidemic famine in Africa, rising commodity prices as reported by Wall Street, and or the proposed cutbacks in Federal programs and spending?

Simple. The trickle-down effect has already hit our communities and the data and statistics keep coming.

Reports out in the last few weeks from sources and institutions as reputable as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Food Research and Action Center, the World Bank’s Food Price Watch, the Food and Agricultural Organization, and the USDA share some sobering news, only some of which includes:

  • One in four households with children in New Mexico—or 28.3 percent of households with children—report food hardship, defined simply as “the inability to afford enough food;”
  • New Mexico is ranked 12th worst in the country in the most recent USDA state food insecurity report;
  • New Mexico came in 46th in the Casey “Kids Count” data released this week as it related to rankings in areas that included food security, education and poverty;
  • 32 percent of New Mexico’s children live in a household where no parent has a full-time, year-round job. A full 41 percent of all children live in a one-parent household;
  • While researchers from the Casey Foundation found that one in five children in the United States lives in poverty, that number is one in four for in New Mexico’s children.;
  • US food prices are currently seeing the highest rise in 36 years. In March, the global food price index hit a record high for the third straight month;
  • A record number of Americans—fifteen percent of the population, or some 46 million—are currently receiving food assistance. That’s an increase of 74 percent since 2007.

Even as the federal government and its “Super Committee” struggles to find an answer to deficit issues, the effects of some of what is listed above is hitting Bernalillo and Sandoval Counties, and that’s before proposed budget cuts to the SNAP food stamp programs.

“We’re already feeling the effects here in Placitas,” reports Sherrill Cloud, one of Casa Rosa Food Bank’s co-directors.  “Roadrunner Food Bank, who supplies the majority of our food for distribution to clients in Placitas, has already made us aware of shortages including fresh produce and canned items in single use or single-family sizes.”

We’re seeing quantity reductions in what’s available for our once-a-month Mobile Food Pantry, and even though the need among the community is greater, and we’re seeing additional families qualifying for assistance, at least for the Mobile Food Pantry, we’re unable to add additional households. We’re simply making do during our regular distributions on Saturdays and trying to fill in the gaps through private donations of food and what we can purchase when cash donations allow us to buy needed products in bulk.”

Art Fine, director of programs at Roadrunner Food Bank, sent a memo out to all participating community food banks this month, acknowledging the current shortages and predicting yet more changes to start in September.  Saying that the current shortages are “. . . due to a perfect storm of events,” Fine pointed out that drastic reductions in available USDA commodity products had occurred due to cuts in the federal budget, that food banks were seeing less donated products and funds due to the tight economy and that higher transportation costs—fuel—combined with higher fresh produce costs were resulting in less available produce, even during prime harvest season.

When asked how Casa Rosa Food Bank was dealing with the decrease in readily available food while simultaneously trying to meet the community’s gradually increasing needs, Cloud pointed to the fact that the food bank was always requesting that those able to give—a few dollars in cash or a few cans of food—to please do so, perhaps more now, than ever.

“I think sometimes there’s a misperception that Roadrunner Food Bank, which distributes to smaller food banks around the state, ‘gives’ us our food,” said Cloud. “While we certainly purchase at a significant discount, we still have to buy that food and that takes resources.” 

Over the last two years we’ve been able to leverage every donated dollar into nine dollars worth of food,” explains Cloud, “because we were buying through Roadrunner and taking advantage of bulk buys and available commodities. That was an enormous benefit to the community and the community members we serve.  We realize we simply won’t be able to leverage the dollars we have quite as well since we’re now dealing with food shortages and rising prices, (but,) that doesn’t really matter when we’ve got hungry community members still requiring assistance. This remains very much a call to the community to meet the needs of our friends and neighbors.”

If you’d like more information about donating to Casa Rosa Food Bank, email Sherrill Cloud or Karen Fischer, co-directors, at casarosaplacitas@gmail.com.


Tent Rocks Monument and Cochiti Lake reopen

—Signpost Staff

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument reopened on Saturday, August 13. However, the road is closed beyond the Monument’s main parking area to the Veteran’s Overlook. The public is asked to adhere to any posted closures within the Monument.

The Monument had been closed since June 29 due to the Las Conchas fire and the subsequent threat of flooding. During the closure, BLM and Pueblo de Cochiti, with assistance from the Las Cochas Incident Management teams, took precautionary measures to minimize flood potential and installed early alert flood systems in Peralta Canyon and the Monument. Visitors to the Monument, located downstream from the fire area, should check weather forecasts prior to their visit. Any anticipated thunderstorms in the high country above the Monument may not be noticeable from the hiking trails when storms are approaching. Visitors should be prepared for temporary road closures or the possibility that they could be temporarily stranded if stream or low level crossings are compromised by flood flows or debris. Heavy rains, especially in the high country affected by the fire, can occur at any time of the day but are generally more common in the afternoons. Early arrival at the Monument is recommended.

The Monument is currently open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., seven days a week. For more information, visit http://www.blm.gov/nm/tentrocks.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Albuquerque District reopened Cochiti Lake Project public use sites and recreational facilities, except for the Tetilla Recreation Area, on August 17. The Tetilla Recreation Area on the east side of the lake, including the Tetilla boat ramp, campground and Santa Cruz Road will remain closed for the remainder of the recreation season. 

The main Cochiti boat ramp will only be open and accessible to boater traffic during the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. No boats will be allowed to remain on the lake overnight. Due to potential for unprdictable canyon flooding upstream, boaters are requested to remain in the main body of the lake andnot attempt any upstream travel.

Cochiti Lake was again closed for a few days on August 22 due to heavy flooding in Cochiti Canyon. State officials estimate that at their peak, floodwaters were flowing at 12,000 cubic feet per second. By comparison, the Rio Grande was flowing less than 1,000 cubic feet per second on that same day. Twenty-five percent of the lake was covered with logs and tree stumps and was black with ash.

Recreation users can contact the National Recreation Reservation Service for camping reservations at 1-877-444-6777. For more information, visit the Cochiti Lake Project on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/usace.cochiti.lake.
   

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