Big Hole Fire ravages 75% of wildlife conservation area

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BELEN, N.M. – Crews in Belen are still trying to figure out what sparked the Big Hole Fire. It quickly scorched more than 800 acres in the bosque a week ago.

When the Big Hole Fire jumped the river, it quickly burned through the grasses and cottonwood trees that fill the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area. It was an emotional sight for the wildland managers who helplessly watched as their conservation area burned right in front of their eyes.

“The next thing I knew I saw these walls of fire coming towards us, and I thought- I started crying,” said Andrew Hautzinger district director of Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District.

Hautzinger and Teresa Smith De Cherif were some of the last people to see the Whitfield Conservation area before it went up in flames.

“We are losing a community asset here because we can’t manage our bosque,” said Hautzinger.

Walking through what is left of the conservation area are signs warning folks the area is no longer open to the public – and the burnt trees that could pose a danger.

“To have a charred area with our grandfather cottonwood trees likely to fall over at any moment is nothing short of an ecological disaster,” said Smith De Cherif.

While 75% of the area is gone, including outdoor classrooms that have been reduced to ash – it’s not a total loss.

“We want to teach people about the power of nature and the big burden of fire it’s a blessing, but it is also a real challenge and from there we can go forward and map a strategy,” said Smith De Cherif.

Smith De Cherif and Hautzinger are looking at this fire as a new opportunity to rebuild.

“I see the silver lining as we get the chance to build back better than we did last time because we are 20 years smarter, but we also get this wonderful chance to bring our community back in and have them be part of it, cause this is a community asset and it needs to be protected as such,” said Hautzinger.

Hautzinger says he wants to see dirt under community members’ fingers and they invited everyone down to Whitfield this weekend for their Earth Day Science Fiesta. While re-planting probably won’t start until next year, this weekend is a chance to grieve the loss and learn how to move forward.