EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – The largest fire in New Mexico’s history was posing a threat to NMSU’s Forestry Research Center in Mora. That is why Owen Burney and his staff took matter into their own hands.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire rapidly expanded and endangered the research facility dedicated to restoring forested lands devastated by severe wildfires. It shuttered the center’s operations and prompted a whirlwind chain of events to save elements of crucial reforestation work.

“It’s very ironic, right? We are a research center primarily focused on restoring post-fire landscapes, and here we are being threatened by a fire that’s interfering with our ability to do our work.” said Burney, superintendent of the center, which is part of NMSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station.

In late April when the Hermits and Peak Fire merged, the situation took a drastic turn when the fire went from about 300 acres to 3,000. Burney’s top priority was to keep his staff safe fallowed by saving the center’s vast seed bank then housed in a walk-in freezer at the facility.

On May4th, the Agricultural Experiment Station secured a state police escort to rescue tree seedings from the center. Burney and his staff left behind about 95,000 seedlings when they evacuated Mora. Each year, the center produces up to 300,000 seedlings to aid reforestation efforts in New Mexico and the Southwest.

Leslie Edgar, associate dean of NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, was part of the recovery effort. The staff retrieved about 75,000 seedlings over two days in a mission dubbed “Operation Rescue Baby Trees.”

“We were able to rescue seedlings used for replanting post-fire environments such as this significant and massive fire,” she said. “We will need these trees for both research and operational plantings this year.”

For now, staff members are working remotely and maintaining the rescued trees at a nursery in Santa Fe run by EMNRD’s Forestry Division, and Burney is working to assess the fire’s toll on the center’s research and production operations. “Without our tree planting efforts after fire, it could take over 300 years for some areas to regenerate, if it occurs at all,” he said.

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