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FRI: Gov declares Black Fire state of emergency, Water company fined $1.2M for sewage discharge in Rio Grande, + More

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Rita Williams
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KUNM

State of Emergency declared in Sierra County as Black Fire prompts evacuations — KUNM news

The black fire burning north of Truth or Consequences has now grown to be the second largest fire in New Mexico's history, prompting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to declare a state of emergency in Sierra County.

The declaration comes as the 47 percent contained fire grows past 300 thousand acres and several buildings burned, expanding beyond the Gila National Forest, threatening communities and prompting evacuations.

According to a press release issued from the governor's office on Friday afternoon, 750 thousand dollars in much needed funds have been made available with the declaration, providing assistance with emergency measures, repairing infrastructure, and helping to prevent future damage.

The Black Fire and the Hermit's peak and Calf canyon Fires – the largest fire in the state's history which is still burning and has been 67 percent contained – have charred nearly three quarters of a million acres. And there are still another 13 wildfires burning across the state, according to data from the Las Cruces Sun News.

Water company fined $1.2M for sewage discharge in New Mexico - Associated Press

The New Mexico Environment Department announced Thursday that it has fined El Paso Water $1.2 million for allegedly discharging more than 1 billion gallons of raw sewage into the Rio Grande in Sunland Park.

The state compliance orders also require El Paso Water to fix the problems that caused the illegal diversion and clean up the impacted areas.

Environment Department officials said El Paso Water illegally discharged up to 10 million gallons of raw wastewater daily into the river just upstream of the Courchesne Bridge since last August.

They said sewage traveled downstream along the New Mexico-Texas border for nearly 2 miles and the illegal discharge didn't stop until January.

El Paso Water is accused of not reporting the unauthorized discharge to state environmental officials in violation of the Water Quality Act and Water Quality Control Commission regulations.

Discharges of untreated sewage typically contain bacteria and viruses known as pathogens, which can cause diseases like cholera, giardia and hepatitis A, according to health officials.

A call to El Paso Water seeking comment on the fine wasn't immediately returned Thursday.

New Mexico residents sue for information on massive wildfire — Associated Press

Dozens of residents in a small New Mexico community impacted by massive wildfires that merged in April are suing the U.S. Forest Service over what they called a failure to provide information about the government's role in starting the blazes.

The Forest Service has acknowledged that two prescribed burns it set to clear out brush and small trees that can serve as wildfire fuel sparked two blazes that came together as the largest in New Mexico's history and the biggest burning in the U.S. right now.

The wildfire has charred nearly 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which sits at the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Several hundred homes have been destroyed.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on behalf of 50 Mora County residents, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

It asks the court to declare that the Forest Service improperly withheld planning documents for the burns, agreements or contracts with anyone who helped carry out the burns and information on the rules and regulations that govern the prescribed burns.

Without the information, the lawsuit alleges, the residents "cannot determine the Forest Service's responsibility — other than media accounts — for starting the fire."

The Forest Service told the Santa Fe New Mexican that it does not comment on pending litigation. The agency has said unexpected, erratic winds during one prescribed burn carried embers outside the targeted area. The other wildfire emerged from a burn set on a pile of dead vegetation in January that smoldered for weeks, even under snow.

The agency has put a hold on prescribed burns nationwide pending its own investigation.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit New Mexico on Saturday for a briefing about the wildfires and recovery efforts. Another wildfire in southwestern New Mexico has burned 466 square miles (1,206 square kilometers).

The Mora County residents said they requested documents from the Forest Service on May 4 about the fire in northern New Mexico, but that the agency failed to respond within 20 working days as required under the law. The lawsuit also seeks attorneys fees.

Herman Lujan, 80, his brother and nephew are among the Mora County residents who are suing. Lujan's home was spared, but he said he has 30 hungry cattle that he might have to sell because they can't graze in a burned pasture his family has used for generations.

"Everything burned," he said. "Timber, everything. I even had an old dozer up there to make ponds for the cows, and everything burned."

Native American youth to be tapped for conservation projects — Susan Montoya Brown, Associated Press

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Friday rolled out guidelines for a new youth service program meant to create job opportunities for Native Americans while boosting their cultural connections to nature through conservation projects on tribal and public land.

The Indian Youth Service Corps is the latest addition to the Biden administration's plans for building a 21st century version of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The mission includes everything from clearing brush to reduce wildfire threats and restore forests to preserving historic sites, helping with archaeological research and building trails.

Haaland talked about a childhood spent hiking to the top of high desert mesas, wading through ice-cold streams and learning about the world's interconnectedness from her grandparents while walking through corn fields at Laguna Pueblo in west-central New Mexico.

"I want everyone to have that profound connection to the great outdoors that I was gifted, and we can help more people access nature no matter where they're from or what their background," she said Friday during a call with reporters. "We will help lift up the next generation of stewards for this Earth."

Haaland described Native Americans as original stewards of the land, saying they have learned over many generations how to sustain communities and that it's time for Indigenous youth to have a seat at the table.

The Interior Department is funneling a combined $3.3 million this year to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation to establish the Indian Youth Service Corps.

The U.S. Forest Service is investing up to $5 million as part of its partnership with the corps, and the National Park Foundation is committing $1 million.

Future funding will depend on agency budgets and private philanthropy.

Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, said enthusiasm is increasing for programs that give young people paying jobs and training for professions related to public lands and natural resource management.

"It checks a lot of really important boxes for donors, and I think the future is very bright for private funding to support these efforts," he said.

The foundation is funding more than 10 conservation and preservation projects from Maine to New Mexico that involve tribal youth crews. Some of the work is aimed at protecting cultural practices, languages and traditional ecological knowledge used for land management.

One of the first Indian Youth Service Corps projects will be in southern Arizona. Six members of the Tohono O'Odham Nation will work as a crew on the Coronado National Forest.

Other work around the Southwest will include native seed collection as land managers work with scientists to reforest areas charred by wildfire.

Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico said the new corps will ultimately lead to more traditional knowledge being incorporated into future conservation efforts as participants move into leadership roles as adults.

"With this program, knowledge is going to flow both ways," she said.

New Mexico county wants to halt use of vote-count machines — Morgan Lee Associated Press

A Republican-led county commission in southern New Mexico is seeking to change the way ballots are collected and counted in the run-up to November's mid-term election.

Otero County's three-member commission includes Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin, who ascribes to unsubstantiated theories that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Griffin was convicted of illegally entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds — though not the building — amid the riots on Jan. 6, 2021.

The commission voted unanimously Thursday to recount ballots from this week's statewide primary election by hand, remove state-mandated ballot drop boxes that facilitate absentee voting and discontinue the use of vote tabulation machines in the general election.

The initiatives were proposed by Griffin and drew support from an advocacy group for "forensic" election reviews that has combed through Otero County election records and canvassed local addresses for registered voters in search of discrepancies in the 2020 election.

New Mexico uses paper ballots that can be double-checked later in all elections, and also relies on tabulation machines to rapidly tally votes while minimizing human error. Tabulation equipment is subject to precertification and election results are audited by random samplings to verify levels of accuracy.

Though Trump won nearly 62% of the vote in Otero County in 2020, county commissioners say they are not satisfied with results of the state's risk-limiting audit of the vote count nor assurances by their Republican county clerk that elections this year will be accurate.

Otero County Attorney R.B. Nichols said the commission's vote to get rid of vote tabulating machines and drop boxes is not binding on the county clerk. He warned commissioners that there are no provisions for a full hand recount in New Mexico's election code, and that moving forward would likely involve going to court to vet supportive documents.

He said the expense of even a partial recount would fall on the county if no irregularities are found.

Alex Curtas, a spokesperson for the secretary of state's office, said the commission appears to be reaching beyond its authority, in conflict with the state election code and other statutes.

County Commissioner Vickie Marquardt said she is not satisfied that future elections will be secure.

"Everybody keeps talking about the 2020 election and overturning the election," said Marquardt. "I am about the 2022 election and the 2024 election and the 2026. If we don't find out what's going on we'll never know."

The county commission abandoned a professional contract for a review of the 2020 election amid a U.S. House committee investigation into potential voter intimidation by door-to-door canvassers with intrusive questions about voting. But the review has persisted without contract under the work of David Clements and his wife Erin Clements with the support of the commission.

David Clements, a former public prosecutor and conservative public speaker, pressured the commission Thursday to demand access to the vote tabulators and computer coding for the machines to check whether there is a way to connect the machines to the internet and for other vulnerabilities.

"We don't dispute that under the election code the secretary of state can select voting machines," said David Clements, who bills himself as a traveling salesman for forensic election audits. "The question is what effect does it have on this commission to use something they know is not trustworthy. ... At that point you all become culpable."

State election regulators say it is wrong and misleading to suggest that vote tabulators are connected to the internet or other computer networks.

"It has become a popular point of disinformation to suggest that New Mexico's vote tabulators are compromised because they are connected to the internet," the agency said on its "rumor versus reality" website that aims to deter disinformation about elections. "Our air-gapped counting systems ensure that vote tabulators are never connected to the internet."

Griffin is not running reelection or other office as his term expires this year.

Grasses sprout in fresh burn scars as residents get their bearings - Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico 

John Trujillo has his morning coffee in a kitchen with a window facing a burnt mountain peak less than a mile away. It’s a daily reminder of the ongoing destruction caused by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire.

Trujillo, a lifelong Mora County resident, said he likes to stay home. “I don’t go anywhere.”

He stayed home when the wildfire kicked up in April, quickly becoming the largest in the state’s recorded history, in part due to dry conditions and high winds, forcing mandatory evacuation orders to residents in the valley he loves. He stayed on May 1, when the fire crossed the mountain range that lines his backyard, igniting spot burns that destroyed his sister’s house and property inches away from the kitchen window where he sips his morning coffee.

“If I would have left that night, it was windier than hell, my house would have started on fire again,” he said. “I guarantee you it would have started on fire again, because everything was still hot.”

About that night. Winds pushed the fire down into the valley, jumping NM Highway 518, spreading north, south and northwest toward Sipapu. The ridge on the highway into the higher elevation towards Taos is now outlined in skinny, burned trees. Tiny smacks of bright green are speckled into the view, new sprouts of vegetation in piles of ash along the fresh burn scar.

Even on Trujillo’s property down in the valley, grass is starting to grow.

But back to May 1. One thing Trujillo, an experienced wildland firefighter, wants to make clear is that he was in no way obstructing fire crews that arrived to put out spot burns. “I knew not to be in their way because I did fight fires.”

But once they left to put out more spot burns in other areas, he saw winds picking up and spreading embers to other parts of his home. He noticed a truck parked next to his garage turning red from the heat. A pile of wood meant to heat his home caught fire, and his sister’s home was still burning.

Trujillo told his wife to stay in their truck and be ready to leave. “We knew we were in trouble,” he said. “I was worried for her because she was never in a situation like this. She would keep getting down so I had to yell at her to stay in the truck so I wouldn’t have to be looking for her and fighting the fire. I knew she was safe.”

And that’s how it went for the next 12 hours. Trujillo built a containment line and put out flames whenever they seemed to jump off from the wind. “First behind the house, making sure everything was out.”

By morning, he successfully saved his home and his daughter’s home nearby. His sister’s house was totally demolished.

“My daughter and her kids live in the trailer. And me and my wife and my son live here,” he said from his back porch. “Generations.”

That family line is what keeps Trujillo home. Cleaning up from the fire is one thing. Prepping for potential floods is another reason his family wants to stay close to home. “We always get flooding in that valley,” Trujillo’s daughter says, pointing to an area a few yards south of her home. “So if it hits hard, it will probably be worse this time.”

Trujillo is committed to rebuilding, even though the experience of surviving the fires is taking a toll on his mental health.

He said there is a lot of work. His list includes fixing the plumbing, hauling the metal scrap from his sister’s house, figuring out if he can salvage any of his classic vehicles, cleaning his freezer from the smell of meat that rotted when the power was shut off, maintenance on his generator and so on.

However, he’s finding himself struggling to get his day going at times.

“My kid’s say I’m depressed. But I work, I always work,” he said. “I’m a tough guy. I feel emotions very seldom, and they say, you know, it’s not good for me, but it’s just the way I am.”

Talking about his experience is helpful, he said, and he is finding conversation with friends and family reminiscing about places that are lost or how the forest is never going to be full again in their lifetimes.

He brought up a recent visit to a neighbor’s property where his friend’s dad lost their home. His connection to the house was from memories hanging out there as a kid and then on into adulthood.

“We hung out in that same house. It’s probably more sad for them, but after I talked to him, it made me think ‘Yes, of course I was there,’ ” he said. “You know what I mean? As a child.”

Trujillo brings it back to the rebuild, and in particular, the reforestation of his beloved mountains.

He said he spent three months after the Cerro Grande Fire burned in Los Alamos on the forest restoration team, planting seeds and clearing burned trees. He questions why that isn’t widespread in Mora.

“You gotta start now. It’s going to take 10 to 15 years to even start seeing any vegetation,” he said. “They spent millions of dollars in Los Alamos doing forest rehab. I was there. It could be work for people. It’s not that hard to learn.”

Whatever vegetation is growing will only help mitigate the potential floods whenever monsoon season hits the community.

On the Trujillo property, standing before a charred mountain, is a single line of trees that did not entirely burn. It’ll be a slim line of defense when the rains begin.

Trujillo pauses and thinks of his neighbor. “I’m scared for them down here. They’re at the lowest point. We’ll have some protection a little bit. But still, how quickly we get a lot of rain, we could get flooded.”

Behind the nearest ridge are even higher peaks with more scorched forest.

“A lot of that stuff that burned up there in the highest peaks,” he said, “is going to come down here.”

Bird flu arrives in Southwest after millions of birds die - By Bob Christie Associated Press

Arizona officials have confirmed the first cases in the Southwest of a bird flu that has led to the deaths of 37 million birds from commercial farms in the central and eastern U.S.

The disease was spotted after tests by federal wildlife officials in three wild cormorants that had been found dead in a park in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, Arizona Game and Fish officials announced this week.

The disease has not yet been found in any domestic birds or in commercial operations, the agency said.

But it is a concern, according to Glenn Hickman, president and CEO of Hickman Family Farms, one of the largest egg producers in the Southwest. Hickman operates four chicken ranches in Arizona, one in California and two in Colorado.

The company has stopped any visits to its farms and doublechecked its biosecurity program, which is designed to prevent its approximately 2 million chickens from being infected. Its chickens are kept in barns that are secured so that wild birds can't enter, and any people or tools that enter are disinfected.

The company dodged a scare recently when the avian flu was found in a flock 3 miles from one of its Colorado farms, Hickman said Thursday. And while he's concerned about the Scottsdale find, it's not anywhere near as concerning as if a nearby commercial operation had an outbreak.

"Those are a lot scarier because the massive amount of virus that is potentially produced when you have a large population is much more than the relatively small amount of virus per bird in the wild bird population," he said. None of his farms were affected.

Arizona Game and Fish officials have been closely monitoring for the disease, which had been no closer than Colorado before this week's announcement, by responding to all calls of dead birds.

Anne Justice-Allen, the department's wildlife veterinarian, said calls from the public alerted her agency to the dead cormorants, water-loving birds that often nest in groups. The three juveniles had fallen out of their nests and were spotted dead by morning walkers in the park, who called wildlife officials.

"It's a good thing they did," Justice-Allen said, because they were able to collect the birds and test them before park workers removed them.

"We had a high suspicion that it was something that we do not normally see," Justice-Allen said. "We have resident cormorants in the area, and we do not normally see mortality events in them."

Justice-Allen said a major concern is backyard flocks of chickens, which are allowed in parts of metro Phoenix. The disease has been found in many homeowner flocks across the country.

Bird owners should watch for symptoms like birds not eating or lethargy, runny noses, seizures or diarrhea, she said. Anyone seeing those symptoms should call the state Department of Agriculture.

The first U.S. detection of the new strain of highly contagious avian flu in domestic poultry was in February in Indiana. More than 37 million birds have been killed to prevent the infection from spreading since then.

As of June 3, it had been detected in wild birds in 40 states, but not in California, Arizona, Nevada or New Mexico. Commercial flocks in 19 states have been infected.

Once an infection is found, the birds won't recover and are killed to prevent spreading the illness, Justice-Allen said.

The outbreak has not only killed domestic fowl. It has also had a heavy toll on bald eagles and other wild bird species, much more so than the nation's last bird flu outbreak detected in 2014. That outbreak cost more than 50 million domestic poultry.

Hickman said egg producers are so far making up for lost production from outbreaks affecting flocks this year.

"I think I can speak pretty firmly that regardless of how many birds that have been affected and depopulated, there are still eggs on every shelf in every grocery store in America," Hickman said.

Albuquerque mayor isolating after testing positive for COVID - Associated Press

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has tested positive for COVID-19 and has canceled his attendance at upcoming events, his office said Thursday.

Keller tested positive Wednesday and is experiencing typical symptoms, city spokeswoman Ava Montoya. He is isolating to keep his family and staff safe, Montoya said.

Keller had planned to attend weekend events in Albuquerque, including a Pride festival and Summerfest.

He also had planned to visit Saturday with President Joe Biden who is scheduled to make a quick stop in New Mexico to be briefed on wildfires burning in the state and the recovery efforts.

Keller is working remotely and looking forward to returning to in-person duties once it's safe, Montoya said.

Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in New Mexico. But top state health officials said Wednesday that a return to mask mandates or other widespread public health restrictions are unlikely because infections are becoming more mild.

Human remains found in Sandoval County ID'd as missing woman - Associated Press

Human remains found last month in Sandoval County have been identified as those of a 20-year-old woman reported as an endangered missing person in April, authorities said Thursday.

Bernalillo County Sheriff's officials said the Office of The Medical Investigator identified the remains as 20-year-old Yasmin Marquez, who was reported missing on April 15.

There was no immediate word on a possible cause of death and it was unclear why Marquez was considered to be in danger.

Sheriff's officials said her remains were located in an open field on May 26.

They said homicide detectives, missing person unit detectives and crime scene investigators responded to the scene and began their investigation.

Sheriff's officials said the investigation into Marquez's death was ongoing.