New Mexico ripe for wildfires

New Mexico ripe for wildfires

31 March 2013

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USA — A wayward spark from a car’s faulty catalytic converter landed in a field of parched grasses alongside a state highway earlier this month, igniting a wildfire that, within an hour, rode 35 mph gusts across more than 150 acres near Capitan.

The fire, which flared up a week before the first day of spring, was out by early evening, thanks in part to the vestiges of weekend moisture that stalled the quick-moving blaze before it reached nearby piñons.

But the fire, called the Joiner Fire, ushers in a potentially devastating fire season, one that comes on the heels of three record-setting fires in New Mexico over the past two years.

And it occurred about two months earlier than normal.

“It’s not if, it’s when,” said New Mexico State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware. “We’ve had a pretty lackluster winter, but we don’t know what it’s going to be like this spring. We hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

As a decade of drought drains moisture from forest fuels and average temperatures continue to rise, this season is shaping up to be one of the worst.

Meteorologists with the Southwest Coordination Center have identified southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico as being slightly more at risk for forest fires than other parts of the region, but they emphasize that this year’s season is especially volatile and variable.

The coordination center identified five factors that can indicate where forest fires might erupt, including drought, abundance of dry grass and twigs, seasonal temperature/precipitation, weather patterns and the intensity of the monsoon.

In 2011, the Las Conchas, Wallow and Horseshoe 2 fires in New Mexico and Arizona erupted in a part of the Southwest where all five factors created above-normal fire potential.

If the SWCC outlook is any indication, New Mexico is facing more severe fire risk than Arizona and Texas, since parts of the state are facing high fuel loads, severe drought conditions, higher temperatures, low precipitation and a dry seasonal forecast.

Additionally, fuel moisture levels are decreasing at the time of year when they usually increase. Some of the more high-risk areas of the state report moisture levels at half the average.

Colorado is also coming out of its worst fire season in more than a decade, where almost 1,500 fires consumed more than 250,000 acres in 2012. That season also began in March, and some fires smoldered until December.

On March 15 of this year, the Galena Fire near Fort Collins broke out and burned more than 1,300 acres before being extinguished five days later.

And, this year in the Southwest, the arrival and intensity of the monsoon season is even less predictable than normal.

A snapshot of conditions around the state shows a dire picture:

        ♦ Seven of New Mexico’s 13 reservoirs contained less than a third of their average levels as of March 1, and two others barely made it to the midpoint, according to the U. S. Department
           of Agriculture.

        ♦ Mountain snowpack was between one-fourth and three-fourths of average in all but the northwestern corner of the state at the beginning of March.

        ♦ Fuel moisture levels, which indicate how flammable the forest might be, have steadily decreased since the beginning of the year when they should have been increasing. In some parts of the state, levels
           are 50 percent of normal and dropping. Fire experts expect that the amount of moisture will go from a “high” fire risk to a “very high” fire risk before the summer.

        ♦ The U.S. Forest Service has warned that massive swaths of the northeastern, southwestern and southern parts of the state face “high” or “very high” wildfire risk this summer.

        ♦ Drought conditions have persisted this year despite the absence of “La Niña” — a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that leaves hot, dry air over the Southwest — and scientists are scratching their heads
           about how to determine when this multiyear drought might end.

“Unfortunately, our scientific understanding of what gets the system stuck (in a drought) is much less developed,” said Dave Gutzler, an environmental science professor at the University of New Mexico. “People like me are stuck looking out the window, describing what we see and shrugging our shoulders, saying, ‘Yeah, it’s mighty dry.’ ”

A La Nada year

In such “La Nada” years, when neither a wet “El Niño” nor a “La Niña” offers forecasters insight into late-summer monsoon behavior, determining temperature and/or precipitation is complicated, according to the coordination center outlook.

SWCC meteorologists are uncertain when the monsoon will arrive or how strong it will be, and both those factors affect whether the fire season will come to an abrupt halt or drag on through the fall.

One silver lining, perhaps, that comes from the multiyear drought is that the lack of snow and rain has greatly diminished the volume and density of “fine fuels” — grasses, twigs and leaves — that can provide the kindling for massive forest fires. But forecasting through the spring dry season is dubious at best, Gutzler said. It’s possible, according to the SWCC outlook, that just enough rain will fall between now and May for grasses to propagate —and then dry out, providing ample tinder for fires all over the state.

“We are getting to the time of year where the seasonal forecasts become quite uncertain,” Gutzler said. “If there’s bad news here, it’s that we’re headed into the dry season now.”

A new message

Ware, the State Forestry spokesman, said the last two fire seasons have much to teach firefighters and New Mexicans alike, since 2011′s season could largely be attributed to human-caused fires and 2012′s to lightning and other natural causes.

Almost 600,000 acres of state and private land were burned in fiscal year 2011, according to State Forestry. More than a third of that acreage came after fire starts from equipment like faulty catalytic converters, vehicle emissions and blown tires.

In 2011, Las Conchas became the largest recorded fire in state history, charring more than 150,000 acres near Los Alamos after a tree fell against a power line.

More than 12,000 people were evacuated from Los Alamos and surrounding towns. That same year, the massive Wallow fire became the largest fire in Arizona history, spilling over the border into New Mexico.

The number of equipment- and human-caused fires has made State Forestry reconsider its message to the public, Ware said.

“The message was no longer: Be careful with fire,” Ware said. “It was be careful doing whatever you’re doing, because we were finding that just normal, everyday activity was causing fires.”

Fine fuel loads that spawned from a relatively wet 2010 provided fuel for not only the 2011 season, Ware said, but also for a second record-setting fire in 2012. The Whitewater Baldy Fire in the Gila National Forest near Silver City burned almost 300,000 acres after a pair of lightning strikes.

Also in 2012, the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso became the most destructive fire in recorded state history, destroying more than 250 buildings and causing more than $22 million in damages.

No one was killed in the fires.

Prescribed burns

In anticipation of the upcoming fire season, crews from various agencies across the state have been burning parts of the forest to eliminate fuels, protect wildlife and reduce the risk to forest dwellers and their property. Around a dozen prescribed burns ranging from 10 to 3,500 acres have begun or were completed since early February, including two small burns in the Sandia Ranger District near Albuquerque.

However, two weeks ago those burns in the forests close to Albuquerque had to stop short of their goal — around 80 acres — after premature fire risk made continuing the burns unsafe, said Karen Takai, the district’s fire information officer.

Prescribed burns generally happen alongside forest-thinning and other fire prevention measures, Takai said. Such burns are continuing in other parts of the state where conditions aren’t as bad.

On March 24, the Bear Fire broke out in the Sandia Mountain foothills, and county and city firefighters worked through the night to contain the brush fire, which investigators said was likely human caused.

While Takai said she’s concerned about the dry season, she’s particularly worried that forest campers and residents won’t get the message about fire safety this season. An unattended campfire or an out-of-control barbecue could have dire consequences.

“If you have even a single ember and some wind, you’re off to the races,” she said.

Warning forest dwellers

Because fires throughout the 20th century were squelched even though they posed little risk to civilization, forests have stopped the cyclical recharge that allowed for water to reach all trees and prevented fuel levels from building up for too long.

Meanwhile, forest towns have popped up and residents have settled down amid trees in wooden houses, Ware said. The space between structures and the forest backcountry, known as the “wildland-urban interface,” requires special attention to prevent another Little Bear Fire, Ware said.

“Our forests are in poor health throughout the western United States,” Ware said. “There are too many trees and not enough water to feed those trees.”

Ware stressed that people who live in or near forested areas need to take real steps to defend their homes from forest fires, such as maintaining at least a 30-foot radius of clear space around homes, building with fire-resistant materials and establishing a route for emergency crews to douse a home should it catch fire.

State, local, tribal and federal agencies have worked in concert to amp up their efforts to inform those in forested areas about preventing fires around their property and ensuring crews can access rural areas.

In the Sandia Ranger District alone, Takai said, the interagency effort has reached at least 2,000 people directly this year at their homes, in community centers and school classrooms. Through social media and other outlets, 30,000 people have gotten tips about fire prevention and about preparing for evacuations that shut down Interstate 40 and keep people from their homes for as much as a week.

Ultimately, however, T kai said forest fire prevention depends on whether the nature-loving public heeds the warnings.

If not, Takai said, a third record-setting fire season is all the more likely.

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