Flash Floods Kill 4 People in the Wake of New Mexico's Historic Wildfire

The state's largest wildfire resulted in no direct deaths, but flooding in the burn area has now claimed four lives.

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Albuquerque, NM street flooded
Summertime floods and flash floods, like this 2014 instance in Albuquerque, sometimes happen during New Mexico’s monsoon season. But burn scars from wildfires can make floods even worse.
Photo: Roberto E. Rosales / The Albuquerque Journal (AP)

Another person has died in New Mexico flash floods. The state has been grappling with flooding in the aftermath of its largest ever recorded wildfire. Three people were found killed in flash floods on July 21, according to the Associated Press. The victims were a family from West Texas visiting their cabin in New Mexico. Now, police have reported a fourth death.

Reuters reported that the most recent victim, an unidentified man, drowned on Sunday in Mora County in the northern part of the state after being swept away by floodwaters while driving a pickup truck on highway 434. Kenny Zamora, a local ranch owner, told Reuters that the man’s vehicle was found on his land, about 9 miles northeast of the town of Mora. At the time, the county was under a flood watch.

New Mexico State Police confirmed the death in an email to Gizmodo. “NMSP is investigating a fatal incident in Mora County involving a vehicle driving onto a flooded road on NM 434 near milepost 7. Investigation is preliminary and the deceased will not be identified until the family has been properly notified. We will have more information as the investigation progresses,” state police spokesperson Ray Wilson wrote.

Mora, Taos, and San Miguel counties have issued multiple flash flood warnings and advisories in recent weeks. Currently, all three counties are under a flash flood warning. The Southwest often receives heavy rains in July and August (known as monsoon season). However, the severity of the ongoing flash floods is also a result of the massive Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak wildfire, which began as two separate fires in April.

Advertisement

Flash flooding and landslides often follow wildfires because the intense heat transforms soil, reducing its ability to absorb water. Without the roots of vegetation holding it in place, land erodes much more easily. Research has shown that climate change is contributing to increases in both the severity of wildfires and the likelihood of extreme precipitation events.

In April, the Forest Service accidentally started the ongoing Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire through two faulty prescribed burns that combined into one catastrophic fire. The blaze has so far covered more than 340,000 acres and is currently almost 100% contained. However, the effects of the fire linger on. Though there were no direct deaths reported as a result of the burn itself, there is a clear link between the present flooding in the area scarred by the wildfire.

Advertisement

Because the Forest Service was directly responsible for igniting the wildfire, it’s possible that the families of the deceased could bring wrongful death lawsuits against the federal government, according to a report from local news outlet KOB4. “The claim might be that the prescribed burns started by the U.S. Forest Service caused wildfires, which caused the loss of significant vegetation and a lot of ash, which was not able to absorb all the moisture from the heavy rain,” Carol Suzuki, a University of New Mexico law professor told KOB4.