Reseeding begins on areas burned by Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire
The Santa Fe National Forest's fire response team has begun dropping seed and mulch from the air onto the areas most badly burned by the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire, the state's largest-ever fire.
The focus of the seeding is the Gallinas river watershed, which provides the great majority of the water for Las Vegas and has been badly affected by the fire. Burned trees and ash have poured into the river during monsoon rains.
The Burned Area Emergency Response team is trying to stabilize the soil and stop so much debris ending up in the river by encouraging barley and native plants to grow on the worst-affected areas
"A helicopter comes in with a bucket, picks up mulch and seed and flies over specific seeding units where the need is the greatest," said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and public information officer with the US Forest Service. "The number one priority here is drinking water quality for Las Vegas."
Seed and mulch are also being dropped around the Tecolote Creek area. About 138 tons of seed are set to be distributed.
The timing during the monsoon rains is deliberate. "You want to get the seed out there when there's rain around to give the best possible chance of germination and revegetation," said Patterson.
He added that this seeding is only taking place on National Forest land. Much of the area burned by the fire was private land and Patterson said the National Resources Conservation Service would be involved in helping to restore those areas.
His team recently completed a third phase of assessment of the area burned by the fire, examining more than 40,000 acres and discovering about a third of that area was classified as having a high soil burn severity.
Beyond planting plants like grasses to help stabilize soil, reforestation is expected to be a huge task which could take years.
"The planting requirements right now, extremely preliminary, are estimated to be 12-and-a-half to almost 21 million seedlings," said Owen Burney, superintendent of the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora County, which is part of New Mexico State University.
Between the nursery at the research center and the Forest Service's capacity, Burney said it is currently possible to grow about 800,000 seedlings a year. It could take over a decade to reforest the fire area, he said.
This reporting was supported by the W. K. Kellogg foundation and KUNM listeners