ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – As firefighters worked Friday to corral the wildfires burning around the West, a special team of biologists were trying to save a threatened trout in southwestern New Mexico from the post-fire ravages — choking floods of ash, soil and charred debris — that are expected to come with summer rains.
The team was using electroshocking devices to temporarily stun the Gila trout so they could quickly be scooped into a net. From there, the fish were being put into a tank to be ferried out of the wilderness via helicopter to a special truck that was waiting to drive them to a hatchery in northern New Mexico for safe keeping.
The first load of trout was brought out Friday and the work would continue into Saturday, said Art Telles, a biologist and staff resource officer with the Gila National Forest.
"When we have hot fire in some of these drainages, that can move ash and sediment after the rains start and that is pretty deadly to trout," he said.
The fish wranglers are focusing on small creeks deep within the perimeter of the Whitewater-Baldy fire, a blaze that has charred more than 453 square miles of the forest and its famed Gila Wilderness. The fire, the largest in the state's history and the biggest currently burning in the United States, is 63 percent contained.
Crews in south-central New Mexico continued to build lines around a second blaze that destroyed 224 homes while racing through 59 square miles outside the mountain resort town of Ruidoso. That blaze was 51 percent contained.
Authorities were allowing more residents back into their homes Friday. They said most communities could re-open by the start of the weekend.
In Colorado, more than 1,500 firefighters were trying to slow down the High Park Fire, which had consumed more than 84 square miles by Friday night.
Thunderstorms and windy conditions were threatening to develop as aircraft and ground crews tried to snuff out a 200-acre spot fire that erupted north of the blaze. Authorities sent evacuation notices to about 300 phone lines in the area and told other people to be prepared to leave.
At least 112 homes have been damaged or destroyed, authorities confirmed Friday. They said that the number will go up as crews can reach areas to make assessments.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is planning a two-day trip to Colorado and New Mexico as the fires continue to force evacuations, threaten buildings and scorch large swaths of land in both states.
Vilsack will meet with fire managers in Fort Collins on Saturday and will be with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in Albuquerque on Sunday.
Federal land managers and scientists have said repeatedly in recent weeks that the frequency and size of wildfires are expected to continue to intensify due to a combination of factors, including decades of fire suppression and persistent drought.
The aftermath of these massive fires is also a growing concern, as denuded mountainsides threaten to send soil and blackened debris into watersheds and communities.
Teams of recovery specialists have been surveying the damage of New Mexico's largest blaze in the Gila forest and are plotting out ways to deal with flooding and reseeding. Part of the preparation includes moving the Gila trout.
The trout was one of the original species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. At that time, its range had been reduced to only four streams within the Gila forest. Through recovery efforts, federal officials decided in 2006 to downlist the trout to threatened status.
"The burning of some of these drainages here definitely is a concern because they're some of the streams we had worked on to help with recovery," Telles said.
The immediate focus includes trout in Whiskey and Langstroth creeks, which make up one of four genetically distinct lineages of the fish. Forest and wildlife officials are also evaluating whether to remove Gila trout from Spruce Creek as well as federally protected Gila chub from Turkey Creek.
The evacuated fish could end up staying at the Mora hatchery in northern New Mexico for some time, forest officials said. After the fire, biologists will monitor the area to see how much ash and sediment will be washed into the creeks by summer monsoons.
Telles said it's too early to say whether the fire and the aftermath will have any effect on the trout's status.
The decades-long effort to help the trout recover has included the removal of nonnative fish from a handful of streams in the wilderness. Restocking in some streams started two years ago.
"The Gila trout is an intrinsic value to our wilderness. It's part of what people seek when they come here," Telles said. "You have trout fishermen from all over the country who want to come and fish for Gila trout."
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