Drought, fires could have far-reaching effects

Sharna Johnson

In the midst of drought and wildfires, eastern New Mexico looks more like a dust bowl everyday. But when the landscape dries up, so does the money, and experts say it’s just the beginning.

Self-described as a normally optimistic guy, Curry County Extension Agent Stan Jones said the ecological and economic impact of current conditions on eastern New Mexico are scary, and it all hinges on a need for rain.

“Dust bowl is an accurate statement. It’s pretty critical right now,” he said.

“This drought is critical; it’s serious. Water’s always a big deal for us but it’s even a bigger deal when you don’t get help from Mother Nature.”

Jones said an April 17 wildfire that burned 71,000 acres of south Curry County is expected to cost the agricultural community $16 million just this year with an estimated $40 million over time, according to a recently conducted economic feasibility study.

And he said that is only one fire. Already this week there have been others, including 300 acres that were still burning Thursday in north Curry County after 24 hours of efforts to quell the blaze by firefighters.

Between Curry and Roosevelt counties, more than 160,000 acres have burned since the first of the year, he said.

“If we have 5,000 acres burn every day, we’re going to be in a world of hurt. It has a direct impact on our economy,” he said.

And the climate is ripe for more fires, he said.

While the damage to homes has been minimal — three structures were lost April 17 — the loss of grazing land and miles of fencing has rendered fire-stricken areas useless.

The affect could be far-reaching.

It will take rain and time before scorched areas can recover, said crop and soil specialist Kevin Branum with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service in Clovis.

Meanwhile, the burned areas are blowing away and Branum said trying to stop it isn’t really an option because it would be “cost prohibitive.”

“We’re keeping an eye on it, and we’re just kind of monitoring it until we have rainfall,” he said. “The blowing sand’s obviously a problem but the acreage is so large there’s really nothing you can do.”

He said luckily the April 17 fire moved fast enough it probably left grass roots beneath the soil that could spark new life with a little moisture.

But Branum said as dry weather and wind continues, the sand blows and can bury plant roots so deep they won’t be able to emerge later.

“Usually a fire goes through there and those roots are still there. Now if we don’t get any rain, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said, explaining the result could be a wasteland of sand dunes.

However with a little rain in the near future, Branum said the area could also become prime real estate as nutrients from the fires enrich the soil allowing plant and wildlife communities to thrive.

“Fire’s a cycle of nature. Our terrain knows how to adapt to it and change,” Branum said. “The prairies burned naturally before we made civilizations in them.”

The agricultural community is praying for rain, but having to make tough decisions in the meantime, Jones said.

Following the April 17 fire — dubbed “the tire fire” because it was sparked when a tire blew out on a vehicle traveling through Melrose — Jones said most cattle owners sold their herds because they lost grazing land.

“It’s huge, it really is. Some of those ranches sold everything they had,” he said. While the cattle market is higher than it’s been in a long time, Jones said the trade-off is that when they are ready to rebuild their herds they will have to buy into a higher market.

Beyond the impact of fires, Jones said farmers aren’t planting crops that need more moisture than irrigation can provide because they won’t survive.

The result is a depletion of animal feed and other staple crops that boost production and the local economy.

“If you’re a rancher, there’s no way you can afford to (feed). There is no hay to be had; everything’s been fed up through the winter,” he said. “There’s so many decisions that have to be made. I feel for the guys that are having to make those decisions.”