The disaster hits Santa Fe next year on May 12. That morning, a wildfire ignites just below the Pecos Wilderness area, due to a lightning strike. The flames quickly erupt into a conflagration, burning along the Santa Fe River and up into the steep hills.

It takes 65 days to contain the blaze, at which point it has burned 2,250 buildings and 251,359 acres, including 100 percent of the Santa Fe watershed, the forested land that delivers rainfall and snowmelt into the city’s two reservoirs, home to a large portion of its water supply.

The scenario above isn’t imaginary: It is based on a fire simulation prepared for Searchlight New Mexico by scientists at the renowned Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, who used modeling technology to explore how a future wildfire could affect the Santa Fe watershed. 

While this was the most catastrophic of the lab’s scenarios — and while there is no way to predict the precise details of a future blaze — a major wildfire in the watershed is highly likely in any given year, city and state officials say. The resulting destruction could be disastrous.

Perimeter of hypothetical fire in Santa Fe watershed. Graphic: Christian Marquez

“We are expecting [a fire] will happen,” said Jesse Roach, Santa Fe’s water division director, who is responsible for managing the city’s water supplies. “It may not happen in the next 100 years, but it may happen this year.” And that means the city needs a viable plan to protect its drinking water and prepare for flooding. “Are there things that we can do ahead of that fire to sort of be ready?” Roach asks.

Santa Fe is not the only community grappling with this question. More than 230,000 people in New Mexico rely on drinking water from rivers, streams or springs that lie in fire-prone areas, according to a Searchlight analysis of data from the State Forestry Division and New Mexico Environment Department. 

At least 17 municipal drinking water systems across the state rely on surface waters in areas at high risk of fire; at least 11 of these systems, including in Las Vegas, have no long-term backup in place if their water becomes contaminated, Searchlight found. 

Perhaps most concerning, hundreds of thousands of people live in areas at risk of post-fire flooding, which include nearly every forested mountainous area in New Mexico, the state’s Forestry Action Plan shows. 

Jesse Roach, Santa Fe’s water division director, stands in his office, surrounded by maps of the Santa Fe watershed. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Though wildfires are often cited as the prevailing risk, the worst disasters could come months after a blaze, when the monsoon season arrives. In the Santa Fe watershed, for example, rain on a severe burn scar would likely produce flooding and landslides, potentially affecting a large portion of the water supply, according to preliminary results from a study commissioned by the city. 

In the worst-case scenario, a heavy storm could wash as much as 3,900 acre-feet of soil, water, rocks and vegetation — enough to fill nearly 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools — down the mountainside, into Santa Fe’s McClure and Nichols reservoirs and potentially into the river channel beyond them. 

The barrage of water and debris could clog the emergency release valve in the McClure Reservoir, flood over the dam and send torrents of muck down the Santa Fe River, along Canyon Road and into downtown Santa Fe. Homes, structures and historic buildings could flood.

Though the city has enough water available from other sources to keep the taps on, emergency officials could lose access to the dirt road that leads to the upper watershed, which they’d need to travel for repair and mitigation work. During subsequent rainstorms, rising levels of debris in the reservoirs would leave less and less room for water. 

The one-two punch of wildfire and rain was all too apparent this summer in northern New Mexico, where severe flooding followed in the wake of the massive Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire. But few communities in New Mexico have laid adequate plans to prepare for the next “big one.” 

Many of the 17 water systems contacted by Searchlight lacked plans to prevent or respond to a wildfire near their watersheds or post-fire flooding. 

Concerned government officials said their disaster planning work was often stymied by growing costs, bureaucratic red tape and geographic roadblocks. In some cases, the terrain is too treacherous for forest thinning or other proactive measures. In the end, officials said, many places may not be able to prevent the worst from happening.

Maria Gilvarry, the utilities director for the city of Las Vegas, on an August tour of the Gallinas watershed and reservoirs, which were impacted by post-fire flooding. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

The unfathomable hits Las Vegas

For Maria Gilvarry, the utilities director for the city of Las Vegas, the nightmarish worst-case scenario came true this past spring when the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon wildfire decimated the Gallinas River watershed, the city’s only source of water. Though Las Vegas had emergency plans in place, the blaze was so severe that it rendered them useless.

“This was way outside of our imagination,” Gilvarry said during a tour of the watershed in July. “The extent to which we’ve been impacted was beyond anything we could have fathomed.”

Whenever it rains over the area of the burn scar, “waves of sludge” pour down the mountains, Gilvarry said. This summer, when an unusually strong monsoon fell over the area, the sludge formed charred black islands of debris in the river, clogged the canyons with boulders and trees, and contaminated a city reservoir with ash. In July, a flash flood in the area killed three people.

Gilvarry’s phone — kept clipped prominently on her belt — emits constant buzzes and chirps that form a chaotic soundtrack to her hectic days. She knows that the long hours, unceasing meetings and complex coordination at all levels of government still may not be enough to solve looming problems.

The state has leased a temporary water treatment facility for Las Vegas, which has allowed the city to slowly build up its supply of clean water. But water restrictions remain in place and the city has not yet figured out how to fund the new permanent water treatment plant it needs to make its system fully functional. 

There is a very real possibility that Las Vegas will be dealing with restricted water supplies for a long time, creating continuing headaches for the 17,000 people who rely on the water system — residents, business owners, tourists, students at two colleges and patients at the state psychiatric hospital, among them.

As wildfires become more frequent and more severe in New Mexico, many communities could face a similar scenario. 

Flood momentum 

The worst damage often happens in the aftermath of a wildfire, when flash floods occur in areas with scorched trees and damaged soil. 

“With all of that vegetation burned away, the water can just gain momentum as it flows down a hill slope and picks up more and more sediment,” said Daniel Cadol, a hydrologist with the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, who studies post-fire impacts on watersheds. “It delivers the sediment and ash downstream, and for the aquatic ecosystem that’s pretty bad news.”

Dave Nunnelley, the utilities director for Alamogordo, in southern New Mexico, remembers watching this devastation firsthand after the 2012 Little Bear fire. Nunnelley spent weeks manning a pump at the city’s Bonito Lake and saw it fill with ash and sediment as monsoon rains fell. He watched all of the fish die from oxygen deprivation, then all of the crayfish. Many of the lake’s dying creatures flopped up on shore where they were scooped up by vultures. 

“People don’t realize how much of a transformation happens when a typical rain hits a burn scar,” he said. 

After a decade of planning, some $20 million in expenditures and the dredging of more than 100 million gallons of sediment, Bonito Lake is expected to be operational again in January. But “they are always going to have to contend with the viable threat of fire,” Nunnelley said. And unless the state institutes a program to reduce fire risks in the forests, he added, “It’s not a matter of if — it’s when.”

Alamogordo was able to survive its water crisis with heaps of cash and solid contingency plans. Even before the fire, the city had built a $12 million desalination plant that allows it to tap into groundwater supplies during periods of high demand. For its main supply, the city now draws water from springs in the Sacramento mountains to the northeast. A full-time three-person crew manages weeds and other small vegetation around the springs, but the area is still at risk of wildfire. And that means the city is still vulnerable to the loss of water from flame.

A sign in the Santa Fe watershed warns that the area is closed to the public, to protect it from human-caused fires and water contamination. The closure has been in place since 1932. Don J. Usner for Searchlight New Mexico

Taps for the economy

A majority of the at-risk water systems in New Mexico are also vulnerable: They do not have a long-term alternative source of water to use if their current one burns. 

Las Vegas is one of them. The city doesn’t have a substitute water supply for the one lost this past summer. Their stop-gap measures have helped them build 49 days of treatable water supply, but over the years it takes to get a full treatment plant up and running, the city could face periods where the water in the river is unfit to drink. 

Gilvarry hopes to get plans for a treatment plant and funding in place soon, but it will likely take a few years to get the plant built and the water system running normally. 

If there are delays and it takes even longer to return to normalcy, it could lead to “economic collapse” that would affect the entire northeast region, said Roy Montibon, a local teacher and community organizer who has regularly appeared at public meetings to express concerns about an impending water crisis. There’d be nothing mild about it — nothing people could solve by “taking shorter showers and turning off the water while they’re brushing their teeth,” he said.

Montibon, who teaches entrepreneurship at United World College outside Las Vegas, thinks the local government is doing all it can. But he is concerned about the long-term impacts that unsafe water could have on businesses and institutions. If they end up closing or leaving the area, the city could lose its already scarce professional jobs, he reasons. 

“If Vegas falls, we all will,” said Jerry Gomez, a rancher who lost his home in Tierra Monte in the wildfire. The rural communities that span northeast New Mexico rely on government services, grocery stores and other businesses in Las Vegas. “We all depend on that city so much. It’s our lifeblood,” he said.

Jerry Gomez talks with his son about the casita he is building to temporarily replace the home he lost in the wildfire. A nearby pond also needs reinforcement to prevent flooding. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Preparing for disaster

Santa Fe, for its part, hopes to prevent a Las Vegas-like event and has taken steps to reduce wildfire risks on the 17,300 acres surrounding its reservoirs. 

Much of that effort falls to Alan Hook, the municipal watershed program manager. In his 15 years with the city, Hook has worked to protect as much of the watershed, water supply and infrastructure as possible. 

On a sunny day last summer, Hook gave a tour of the watershed in his white, city-issue pickup. Closed in 1932 to protect water quality, the road through the landscape is sealed off from the public by a heavy, locked gate. Hook drives past it through stands of wide-spaced ponderosa pine. 

The forest here looked very different before the city began thinning timber in 2001, he notes. Some of these acres had as many as 1,500 trees clustered in tight stands, the result of more than a century of extinguishing natural fires in the forest. There are far fewer trees now, owing to the thinning and prescribed burns that have been conducted through a partnership between Santa Fe and the U.S. Forest Service.  

Alan Hook, Santa Fe’s municipal watershed program manager. Courtesy of Alan Hook

Progress, nevertheless, has been slow. Because the watershed lies within the Santa Fe National Forest, each thinning or “treatment” project has to go through a lengthy permitting and environmental assessment process. The crews available to do the work are often stretched thin, constrained by weather conditions and multiple responsibilities across the region. 

Treatment costs have also been increasing, more than tripling over the past decade. About 95 percent of the land immediately surrounding the city’s reservoirs has been thinned. But it’s taken more than 20 years to do it, Hook says.  

“It’s kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “You treat an area and then 10 or 15 years later, you probably need to go in and either treat it again or let fire do the work.”

The work pays off in the end, according to the city’s preliminary flood and landslides study. A wildfire in the thinned patches of forest would produce significantly less debris in a rainstorm than in the un-thinned areas.

But significant flooding risks remain, the study warns. Some of them are due to a 10,000-acre expanse in the Pecos Wilderness at the higher reaches of the watershed, which contains untreated, dense forest. Because it is a designated wilderness, the use of mechanical equipment like chainsaws is prohibited. There are no immediate plans to thin the area as a result of the restrictions, according to a spokesperson for the Santa Fe National Forest.

The Santa Fe River along Canyon Road in September. Flooding could occur along the river after a catastrophic wildfire. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Roadblocks to planning 

Numerous other challenges stymie government efforts to protect fire-prone forests and communities. Managers cite the difficulty of navigating the required permits and regulations in all the various jurisdictions in their watersheds, which can include private, state and federal lands. 

Many municipalities and small communities also lack the staff or funding to undertake in-depth planning processes. Of the hundreds of at-risk watersheds in the state, only the Cimmaron watershed near Raton has completed a federal Community Wildfire Protection Plan, considered the gold standard for local planning.

Flood prevention work lags as well. The East Mountain area near Albuquerque has prepared for wildfires, for example, but not for floods, according to its Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

“To date, very little planning has taken place to prepare East Mountain communities for rapid post-fire response,” the document says.

When a fire does hit a flood-prone area, bureaucratic issues can prevent a speedy response. According to Brian Williams, Santa Fe’s emergency management director, the federal funding programs for post-fire response are much less helpful than those for the fire itself. The grant programs often move too slowly to get work done before the flooding starts, Williams said. 

Even when planning and response are at their best, it’s much harder to protect property from flooding than from fire. Once flooding begins, there’s little that can stop it.

“We think we can engineer our way out of everything, but sometimes you can’t,” Williams said. “Sometimes the only thing you can do to protect yourself from disaster is get the hell out of its way.”

Ash-filled water flows through a filtering structure on Gallinas Creek, northwest of Las Vegas. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

How we created the fire and flood scenarios

The hypothetical wildfire scenario in the Santa Fe watershed comes from the U.S. Forest Service’s Large Fire Simulator (FSim) library. Michelle Day and Alan Ager, researchers at the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab, selected one of the most extreme scenarios within the watershed for use in this story. More information on FSim and the methodology can be found here

The flooding scenario comes from a study commissioned by the city of Santa Fe to better prepare for potential flooding and landslides in the watershed following a wildfire. The authors are scientists from the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nature Conservancy. The study has not yet gone through the peer review process and its results are considered preliminary. 

The study’s authors used fire simulation models to create three hypothetical fires in the Santa Fe watershed that would burn the soil at low-severity, medium-severity and high-severity levels. They then used historic weather data to create three hypothetical storm events and modeled how the water and debris would move through the watershed under the different conditions.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly included Santa Fe as one of the cities without a long-term backup in place if its water system becomes contaminated. Santa Fe does have such a backup. 

Lindsay Fendt got her start covering the environment as a reporter for The Tico Times in San José, Costa Rica. She covered human rights, immigration and the environment throughout Latin America before...