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State to test alert sirens in fire-damaged county amid flash flood risk


State to test alert sirens in fire-damaged county amid flash flood risk

Jun 11, 2024 | 5:40 am ET
By Patrick Lohmann
State to test alert sirens in fire-damaged county amid flash flood risk
Grace Vigil points to the top of her steps, where floodwaters reached following a flood July 12 in her home in the burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. Her home was spared due a flower garden fence, which diverted the wall of water. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

State emergency response officials are beginning weekly tests of alert sirens in Mora County to warn of dangerous flash floods in the scar of New Mexico’s biggest-ever wildfire.

The 534-square-mile Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire started in April 2022, but it continues to cause serious risks to lives and property two years after it was extinguished. The fire burned at such high intensity in some areas that the soil has become hydrophobic in some areas, and debris falls off mountainsides more easily due to the loss of vegetation.

There have been nearly 80 preliminary reports of flash floods and debris flows in the burn scar since June 2022, according to the National Weather Service, including two floods that killed four people in July 2022.

This week, forecasters again warned of flash flood risk in the burn scar, saying the arrival of between half an inch and 1.75 inches of rain created a “life-threatening situation.” The forecasters warned that debris flows could be expected across roads, and flash floods could pop up in ditches, creeks and streams.

Weekly flash flood sirens in Mora County

Every Wednesday at 12 p.m.

The state has more information about how to be prepared for severe weather here.

NWS forecaster Randall Hergert said Monday evening that, as of 6 p.m., there had been no reports of flash flooding in the burn scar, “thankfully,” despite moderate to heavy rain in the area.

But the risks could loom for years. As a result, the state’s emergency department installed alert sirens in areas with the highest risk.

In a town hall meeting in early May, residents in the mountainous areas of the burn scar told Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that they were worried the sirens weren’t working, because they’d experienced heavy rainfall without hearing them.

“Every single flood we’ve had, those are the sirens we need to notify the people. They’ve never gone off,” said Joshua Alcon, a resident of Cleveland, N.M. “I mean, that’s ridiculous.”

In response, the governor said she would task the state’s department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management with ensuring the sirens were functional and would go off when needed. Ali Rye, deputy secretary for the department, conducted a test of the sirens during the meeting that she said was successful.

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And on Monday, the department announced it would begin weekly tests of the sirens in Mora County. They’ll begin every Wednesday at noon and last less than a minute, according to a department spokesperson.

“These weekly tests will ensure the system’s functionality and allow DHSEM to address any issues before an emergency occurs,” spokesperson Danielle Silva said.

The sirens are placed on county property and maintained by the state. Local officials activate the sirens, Silva said. 

“In the event of severe weather, such as flooding, local entities will have the ability to use sirens to give residents a warning and provide them with time to take action to keep themselves safe,” Silva said. 

The department also offered tips to people if they hear the sirens outside of the testing window, including staying inside, getting to higher ground and avoiding travel, if possible. They also cautioned people never to enter flooded areas in a vehicle or on foot.

See a map below of where flash floods have been reported in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar.