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THURS: Lightning caused the South Fork Fire, + More

A charred car and the remains of the Swiss Chalet Hotel are pictured after being destroyed by the South Fork Fire in the mountain village of Ruidoso, N.M., Saturday, June 22, 2024. Authorities said a lightning strike caused the larger of two wildfires that killed at least two people and destroyed or damaged more than 1,400 structures in New Mexico.
Andres Leighton
/
KUNM
Smoke coming from the South Fork fire on the Mescalero Apache reservation. Officials say the fire was sparked on reservation land by a lightning strike.

South Fork fire sparked by natural causes, Salt Fire investigation continues Daniel Montaño, KUNM News

Officials announced Wednesday that lightning caused the devastating South Fork Fire still burning outside Ruidoso and the Mescalero Apache Reservation.

They emphasized human activity was not a factor in sparking the blaze.

The cause of the Salt Fire burning just a couple of miles south is still under investigation.

Wildland fire investigators and law enforcement officers from eight different agencies were involved in the investigation, that included both local and federal organizations, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New Mexico State Parks Department, the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Land Management and the Forest Service to name a few.

The blazes were first reported on June 7th, burning on Mescalero land near Ruidoso. Despite an aggressive response by several agencies, high winds fanned the South Fork flames to over 15,000 acres in the first day. As of July 3rd, the fire has burned almost 18,000 acres and is 87 percent contained.

The FBI is offering a $10,000 award for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or person responsible for starting the Salt Fire.

Cybersecurity breach could delay court proceedings across New Mexico, public defenders office says - Associated Press 

What officials are calling a cybersecurity breach at New Mexico's statewide public defenders office could lead to delays in some court proceedings across the state, the department reported Wednesday.

The New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender said the breach began last Thursday. A timeline for restoration wasn't immediately clear.

New Mexico includes 13 district courts, 54 magistrate courts, 81 municipal courts, probate courts and additional specialty courts, according to the Judicial Branch of New Mexico website.

The statewide public defenders office, which provides legal representation to low-income people facing criminal charges, is the largest law firm in the state with 13 offices, more than 400 employees and contracts with about 100 private attorneys.

The department said the cybersecurity issue was preventing its employees from accessing some internal records while also delaying communications with clients, attorneys and the courts.

"Email has been a primary way to send discovery, motions, communication and negotiations with prosecutors," department spokesperson Maggie Shepard said. "All of that is now basically stopped."

Shepard said the extent of the breach wasn't yet known, although she said it did not immediately appear that the private information of clients and contracted lawyers had been compromised.

In the meantime, the department is communicating with New Mexico's courts and its clients in person, by phone or by fax, she said.

Albuquerque instills tribal consultation in development plans for culturally significant land - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller signed legislation Wednesday requiring tribal consultation on proposed developments on culturally significant land.

City Council Tammy Fiebelkorn sponsored the amendment to the city’s Integrated Development Ordinance, which the council passed unanimously last month.

It adds tribal nations and pueblos as “commenting agencies” on any proposed developments within 660 feet of Albuquerque Open Space or tribal land, according to the city.

The amendment is meant to ensure tribal leaders are able to give the city feedback on plans to develop land that “has significance to historic and ongoing cultural practices,” according to the city’s announcement.

Keller said in a statement that the legislation strengthens the city’s partnerships with tribes and sets “an example for the nation.”

Ahtza Chavez, executive director of Naeva, an organization that aims to build Native power and defend tribal sovereignty, says the organization has “worked tirelessly defending sacred sites from intrusive development.” She called the city’s move a “first step towards continuing to foster meaningful tribal engagement.”

University of New Mexico invests in funds with shares in Israeli companies - By Lily Alexander And Nate Bernard,The Daily Lobo viaSource New Mexico

The University of New Mexico invests in at least two mutual funds that own shares in Israeli companies, according to a list of investments within the funds obtained by the Daily Lobo through a public records request. UNM also holds bonds in a weapons manufacturer that supplies the Israel Defense Forces — the national military of Israel.

This information comes amidstcalls by pro-Palestine activists for UNM to divest from companies based in Israel or companies that indirectly aid the Israeli military.

The mutual funds —Axiom International Small Cap Equity Fund andBlackRock ACWI ex USA Index — together own shares in 15 companies based in Israel, including defense company Elbit Systems Ltd.

UNM holds bonds in Honeywell International, according to an April 2024Asset Summary Statement obtained by the Daily Lobo through a public records request. Though based in the United States, Honeywell producesmissile parts used by the IDF, according toAl Jazeera.

In total, Axiom and BlackRock have about $18.1 million in shares in Israeli companies. It is unclear how much money from UNM goes to each fund — and how much goes directly to Israeli companies — from the documents obtained.

On June 12, aUnited Nations commission declared Israeli authorities responsible for war crimes in Gaza, including “crimes of starvation as a method of warfare, murder or wilful killing, intentionally directing attacks against civilians and civilian objects, forcible transfer, sexual violence, torture and inhuman or cruel treatment, arbitrary detention and outrages upon personal dignity.”

MUTUAL FUNDS

Mutual funds consolidate the assets of investors, including the University, and pool the assets into a fund.

Mutual funds are directed by fund managers who, for actively-managed funds, make changes to the fund on behalf of its investors, according toInvestopedia. Investors, like the University, have no control over the investments a mutual fund has. But investors can withdraw from mutual funds by selling their assets within them.

BlackRock owns shares in 14 Israeli companies, including Elbit Systems Ltd.

Elbit is a defense company that develops and supplies technology such as military aircraft and helicopter systems, according to itswebsite. Elbit manufactures and supplies about 85% of the Israeli military’s drones, according to theDatabase of Israeli Military and Security Export.

In May, Elbit wrote that since Oct. 7, 2023, the company has experienced “a material increased demand for (its) products and solutions from the Israel Ministry of Defense (IMOD)” and heightened its support for the IMOD, according to anearnings release.

BlackRock and Axiom both own shares in Israeli technology companyNice Ltd. Axiom also owns shares in Camtek Ltd., an Israel-based company that develops and manufactures equipment for the semiconductor industry, according to itswebsite.

BONDS

Bonds are a type of investment in which the investor lends money to a corporation in exchange for regular interest payments and a return of the investor’s money once the bond reaches maturity, according toForbes.

The University has over $400 million in assets managed by the UNM Foundation, according to itswebsite. This includes about $195 million in taxable bonds, according to the April 2024 Asset Summary Statement.

Honeywell manufactures HG1930 — a measurement unit used in missiles, according toHoneywell’s website. On June 6, fragments of HG1930 were recovered from a missile that targeted a UN-run school in Gaza, killing 40 Palestinians, according toAl Jazeera.

The UNM Foundation has direct control over the bonds it chooses to invest in, unlike the investments within mutual funds.

In April, UNM held 88 bonds in corporations mostly headquartered in the United States, according to the Asset Summary Statement.

None of the corporations UNM held bonds in are headquartered in Israel, but many of these corporations, like Honda, operate in Israel.

In the Asset Summary Statement, the UNM Office of the Custodian of Public Records redacted UNM’s shares in each bond and their associated market values. The office cited “trade secrets” within the documents as the reason for the redactions — making them exempt from public disclosure per theInspection of Public Records Act.

Because of this, it is unclear how much money UNM invests in each bond.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said she was uncertain why UNM redacted the shares in the bonds and their market values.

“I don’t know in what universe these are trade secrets,” Majors said.

THE UNM INVESTMENT POLICY

As delegated by the Board of Regents, UNM’s investments are overseen by theUNM Foundation Investment Committee, housed by theUNM Foundation — a nonprofit separate from the University that aims to provide it with financial support.

The UNM Foundation Investment Committee manages UNM’s investments in accordance with itsConsolidated Investment Fund Investment Policy, according to its website. The policy is approved by the UNM Foundation Board of Trustees and the Board of Regents, both of which review it annually. The policy was last updated in February 2023.

The policy reads that the UNM Investment Committee must factor in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations when making investment decisions. The committee must consider how an entity they invest in “manages relationships with employees, vendors, stakeholders and locales in which they operate,” according to the policy. This includes considerations about ethics and human rights, the policy reads.

When ESG considerations were initially added to the investment policy, several of UNM’s investments were sold and replaced, according to Gabe Gomez, the managing director for marketing and communications at the UNM Foundation. UNM and its investment advisors regularly review the University’s investments — including mutual funds — to ensure they align with the investment policy and performance goals, Gomez wrote.

“Investment changes are made as often as necessary to ensure this alignment,” Gomez wrote.

In a campus-wide email on May 14, University President Garnett Stokes announced UNM’s commitment to publicly disclosing the results of research into its investment portfolio by this August. UNM declined to comment on its investments until then, Cinnamon Blair, chief marketing and communications officer, said.

Individuals from the UNM Foundation, Health Sciences Finance & Administration, the Office of the President and Financial Services will contribute to this research, according to Blair.

In the May 14 email, Stokes wrote that a public university should not serve as a “political tool” to express opinions on complex social and geopolitical matters.

“In the face of such distressing global challenges, we can all agree that violence and resulting human suffering are antithetical to our values and mission,” Stokes wrote in the email.

The Investment Committee considers UNM investments to be “an economic resource in advancing UNM’s mission,” according to its policy.

Dark money group admits spending but denies disclosure requirement - By Marjorie Childress, New Mexico In Depth

A dark money group that spent thousands of dollars to influence New Mexico primary elections responded yesterday to a State Ethics Commission lawsuit seeking to compel them to publicly disclose their donors.

The response, filed in New Mexico’s federal district court, admits the group made independent expenditures advocating for particular candidates.

Independent expenditures in this sense are a specific kind of political spending defined in New Mexico’s Campaign Reporting Act – basically, advertisements that advocate for or against a candidate for electoral office. Such advertisements can be broadcast, run in newspapers or the internet, or mailed to people’s homes.

But the group denied it met the test under New Mexico disclosure laws for registering as a political committee or for otherwise disclosing political donors and spending on independent expenditures.

New Mexico’s campaign disclosure laws attempt to force disclosure by independent groups in several ways.

For groups formed primarily for making independent expenditures, it compels them to register as a political committee and disclose their donors and spending. The New Mexico Project’s response denied the commission’s claim they fit this category.

For groups who aren’t primarily engaged in politics, but who dabble enough to make a difference through independent expenditures, state law requires disclosure reports after a certain level of spending occurs. In its response, the group denied they met the necessary thresholds for disclosure under this provision.

Other than these denials, the response doesn’t offer details about the group’s primary purpose, or how much it has raised or spent.

The group also denied that its donors contributed to the group for the purpose of making independent expenditures – a key provision under New Mexico law that has become a loophole that at least one group exploited in years past to avoid disclosure of donors.

The group’s attorney, Blair Dunn, sent New Mexico In Depth the group’s response, which he said was filed yesterday. He answered questions briefly over email but has not responded to requests for an interview. In an email today, he said New Mexico In Depth’s analysis of its response to claims by the ethics commission is “not entirely correct, our answer is more nuanced than we simply admit to all of those facts as you can read from the answer, it is not accurate to simply summarize our answer as that.”

However, the group’s court filing begins by simply admitting or denying numbered allegations made by the ethics commission in its initial complaint.

New Mexico In Depth’s analysis of the group’s response is based directly on those admissions and denials, which speak to whether or not it meets the definition of a political committee, made independent expenditures, or otherwise meets reporting requirements.

DUE PROCESS QUESTION

The New Mexico Project’s response does include a lot more than simple denials or admissions of claims against it in the ethics commission lawsuit.

It alleges that the ethics committee is engaging in selective enforcement based on race and ideology; that it failed to provide due process; that it is violating the First Amendment rights of the NMP and its founder, Jeff Apodaca; and that it is engaged in a media smear campaign.

We asked Dunn for more detail, particularly about the due process claims, noting a May 15 letter the ethics commission sent the group seeking resolution, several weeks before the commission sued. He’s so far not responded to our interview request, or offered much detail.

Dunn did admonish New Mexico In Depth in an email to be more “balanced” in our reporting, but didn’t offer examples of how our reporting lacked balance. In a later email, he said the ethics commission’s lack of due process should be our focus rather than reporting requirements. (Reporting requirements are the focus of the ethics commission lawsuit.)

“In a rush to get this out ahead of the primary the SEC violated due process and included Jeff purely out of retaliation for speech,” Dunn wrote, “…a reporter worth their salt would worry first about that, before getting overly wound up over a disagreement about reporting requirements.”

“Due process” certainly sounds more serious than “reporting requirements.” And we want to hear more, having just learned of the due process concerns yesterday.

But don’t let the mundanity of state laws fool you. Reporting requirements are aimed at ensuring every one of us can make informed decisions at the ballot box.

We’re interested in the efforts of lawmakers over the years to bring more transparency to political spending and how effective our current transparency laws are.

This is why we focus on spending by groups who don’t disclose their donors, like the New Mexico Project, and other groups in years past.

It’s why we’ve also noted this year that another group, Equality New Mexico, spent tens of thousands on political advertising but didn’t disclose its donors. The group shielded that information by claiming all its political donations were under $200, which are exempt from disclosure under state law. Is the group still spending dark money? Yes.

Flash floods poised to continue in disaster areas through monsoon season - By Danielle Prokop,Source New Mexico

It’s the way of rain in the high desert: sometimes too little, and then a lot all at once.

With more rain expected this week, and an uncertain monsoon season ahead, flash floods threaten lives and homes in the still-burning South Fork and Salt Fires, but also in the burn scars of the 2022 Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fires.

But human burning of fossil fuels creates hotter conditions that both speed up the drying out of the land, but also supercharge rainstorms that do build up.

“While we may get fewer storms, storms are getting more intense when they do hit,” said Andrew Mangham, a hydrologist at the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service.

New Mexico has seen near-historic levels of moisture in the atmosphere for June.

“With climate change, with the warming of the atmosphere, and the warming of the oceans, we’re getting into a situation where the storms are capable of producing much heavier rainfall than we’ve seen in the past, simply because there’s much more water in the atmosphere,” Mangham said.

Weather experts and local officials have their eyes to the skies, urging people to heed warnings about flooding and dangerous debris flows in the coming weeks and months.

BRACING FOR MORE FLOODING

Officials said that first responders pulled more than 100 people from floodwaters in and around Ruidoso, which is experiencing dramatic flooding and debris flows after rains pounded the areas burned by the South Fork and Salt fires.

Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford opened a Tuesday community meeting by thanking rescue crews and warned the area was continued “ground zero” for fire and flooding impacts.

“We had a lot of folks that were pulled out of the water by our local responders and swift-water teams. It was just a miracle that we didn’t have a loss of life and no serious injuries,” Crawford said.

Major General Miguel Aguilar, who leads both the New Mexico National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, pledged the state’s resources during the recovery, at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s gonna be a long road, we know that. We’re not going to measure in days, unfortunately, it’ll be years before we’re completely done,” said Aguilar.

Aguilar warned that floodwaters are unpredictable after a fire.

“As many of you witnessed on Saturday and Sunday, that was a lot of water coming down off the mountain at a very, very high rate of velocity that almost no amount of obstacles can really stop,” he said.

During the webinar, people asked what flood mitigation is currently in place in Ruidoso.

Crawford responded that the city has purchased barriers to mitigate landslides and flooding, and is coordinating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on an engineering plan to see if ponds can be built.

“There will be flooding,” he said.”There’s a really real possibility of a landslide in the Upper Canyon area.”

CONCERNS ON UPPER CANYON NEIGHBORHOODS:

The city on Tuesday reopened access to Upper Canyon, an area hit hard by both fire and flood, Crawford said the area may face further closures depending on flooding risk during the week.

“If there’s rain, we’re gonna ask people to go ahead and leave the area,” he said.

He further urged people not to stay up there if they go to check on their property, reminding people that a boil water advisory is still in place.“It’s not safe to spend the night up there,” he said. “If we have rain events, there’s an issue with landslides and really severe flooding.”

‘YOU CAN’T STOP THE WATER’

Ruidoso isn’t the only place getting pummeled by floods. Las Vegas and the surrounding areas are still relying on alternate water sources, as their municipal system was overwhelmed by the flooding, as debris and more soils run into the water during heavy rains.

Neighbors have been pooling resources to address flooding, ripping through arroyos, and scattering debris downstream.

Yolanda Cruz, who’s lived in Las Vegas for more than 30 years and moderates the community recovery page, noted that she was luckier than others, with only her driveway of the mountain road washing out.

But it’ll be a costly fix, and she’s still waiting on other payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We still haven’t been paid by FEMA for the fires and we were affected by both the fires and flooding,” she said. “I don’t hold out much hope that it’s gonna be done quickly.”

Her parents, who are in their 70s, saw their backyard washed away into an arroyo.

“My nephew had a car on a trailer, and that ended up in the neighbor’s driveway,” she said. “And then my parents’ propane tank was three houses away.”

She said that living with the floods means adopting an emergency mindset – having a plan for when it rains, understanding how to use sandbags, and trying to be adaptable.

“You can’t stop water,” she said. “So the most you can do is try to, maybe, route it a certain way.”

MONSOON PREDICTION CHALLENGES

The unpredictability of monsoons, coupled with their chances of increasing ferocity, make any definitive statements about what will happen in the future difficult, said Mangham, the National Weather Service hydrologist.

The fast build-up of monsoons means that the best predictions for where rain will be, and how much might fall, only has a few day’s notice.

“The timescale is one to two days out,” he said. “That’s where we can say there’s a pretty good chance that in this town or this set of mountains, we’re gonna see some heavy rainfall. Once we get beyond day five, it becomes quite a bit more difficult for us.”

Instead of the non-soon of last year, where the seasonal rains failed to materialize, the die is loaded into seeing a monsoon season that could be somewhat drier than average compared to previous years.

But that tool is imprecise.

“The Sacramento mountains can get shellacked with three or four years worth of rainfall in one summer, and the whole state could still be below average,” Mangham said.

And the best estimate right now is that Ruidoso and the Sacramentos may see a wet monsoon.

Flooding occurred all over town as fierce rains pushed up floodwaters and carried ash, soils and sludge in powerful debris flows.

It was considered a storm that is seen every 350 to 400 years, said Mangnam, but with our changed climate, those powerful storms are happening more often.

“That’s definitely not the only one like that we’re going to get in the area,” he said.

Another factor for New Mexico’s rains is hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. It got off to an explosive start with Hurricane Beryl, which is now rated as a Category 5 storm, and caused “Armageddon-like” damage in the Caribbean.

The storm is forecasted toenter into the Gulf of Mexico, a pattern that often feeds moisture into New Mexico.

“If we’re getting more and more hurricanes, stronger hurricanes come into the Gulf of Mexico, then I think that you have to say there’s an increased chance that we’re going to be pulling moisture and and getting some pretty heavy rainfall events, especially across the southern tier of New Mexico, where the Ruidoso burn scars are,” Mangham said.

There are efforts to try and get ahead of the flash floods.

Last week the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency which maintains measurements on rivers and streams, helped install monitoring equipment to give more warning when river levels rise.

The increased monitoring will continue through September, triggering weather officials when rains begin, and allowing more time to issue evacuation orders.