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New Mexico Wildfires: Mapping an Early, Record-Breaking Season

Fueled by abnormally dry, warm conditions and spread by strong winds, wildfires have burned more than 600,000 acres across New Mexico this spring — making it one of the worst fire years in the state’s recorded history. And there’s at least another month of peak fire risk ahead.

The explosive, early start to this year’s Southwestern fire season reflects the convergence of long-term trends — a forest landscape overgrown after decades of aggressive fire suppression and parched by drought; springtime temperatures warmed by human-caused climate change — and more immediate dangers, like the relentless winds that have fanned the flames.

It’s an ominous sign for the rest of the American West, where the fire season tends to start later, but where conditions are similarly primed to burn.


In New Mexico, Fires Started Earlier and Grew Stronger Than in Previous Years

The cumulative amount of fire activity detected by satellites in the state, by year.





3,000 fire detections

All other years since 2003

3,000 fire detections

All other years since 2003


Source: NASA/Fire Information for Resource Management System Each fire detection represents at least one fire within a square kilometer, with a confidence level of 95 percent or higher. Detections may include the same fire over multiple days in areas that are burning persistently.

New Mexico’s largest and most destructive blaze has burned for nearly two months, alone consuming more than 315,000 acres of land — an area about the size of the city of Los Angeles.

Known as the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire, the massive blaze has forced waves of evacuations from the outskirts of Las Vegas, N.M., a small city about an hour’s drive east of Santa Fe, and other mostly rural communities in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The fire, which started as two separate blazes that later merged, has damaged or destroyed more than 350 homes and other buildings so far, but no lives have been lost.


How the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire Grew Into a Behemoth

More recent burn ⟶





PICURIS

PUEBLO

10 miles

to Taos

Extent of fire

May 12

Santa Fe

National Forest

Extent of fire

May 2

Hermits Peak Fire

April 6

Calf Canyon fire

April 19

10 miles

to Santa Fe

Extent of fire

May 12

PICURIS

PUEBLO

10 miles

to Taos

Extent of fire

May 12

Santa Fe

National Forest

Extent of fire

May 2

Hermits Peak Fire

April 6

Calf Canyon fire

April 19

10 miles

to Santa Fe

Extent of fire

May 12

PICURIS

PUEBLO

10 miles

to Taos

Extent of fire

May 12

Extent of fire

May 2

Hermits Peak Fire

April 6

Calf Canyon fire

April 19

10 miles

to Santa Fe

Extent of fire

May 12

10 miles

to Taos

Extent of fire

May 12

Extent of fire

May 2

Hermits Peak Fire

April 6

Calf Canyon fire

April 19

10 miles

to Santa Fe

Extent of fire

May 12


Source: National Interagency Fire Center | Note: Data is through May 30.

Propelled by strong winds, warm temperatures and low humidity, the fire moved quickly through dry, overgrown forests and grasslands. Fire crews fought to slow its advance, but the inferno’s fast pace and extreme behavior often hampered their containment efforts. On the gustiests days, which saw winds reach up to 80 miles per hour, firefighting planes and helicopters had to be grounded and crews were prevented from reaching the front lines.

“When the conditions line up like they did, you don’t have a lot of options,” said Rick Young, an incident commander for the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire. All you can do, he added, is “get people out of the way.”

Similar conditions have fueled wildfires across New Mexico. The Black fire in Gila National Forest exploded in mid-May to become the second largest blaze burning in the state. It has continued to grow, forcing nearby evacuations as recently as this weekend. Another large springtime wildfire near the village of Ruidoso in the south of the state, which has since been contained, destroyed or damaged more than 200 structures and left two people dead.

But the sheer size of the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire has stood out. It is the largest fire in the United States so far this year and the largest ever recorded in New Mexico.

Calmer winds and wet weather over the past week, which even included some snow, helped firefighters stop the progression of the blaze. They continued to hold the fire in check through Memorial Day weekend, even as higher-risk fire weather returned.



The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon blaze has threatened mountain villages, forcing thousands to evacuate. Jim Weber/Santa Fe New Mexican, via Associated Press

A ‘Perfect Recipe’ for Explosive Fires

This spring, the risk factors aligned for an extreme fire season in New Mexico, said Park Williams, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies long-term drought trends and the effects of climate change.

Much of the state saw its driest or near-driest April on record. Springtime temperatures were above average, too.






New

Mexico

Precipitation

Temperature

April 2022

April 2022

Record

coldest

Record

wettest

Near

normal

Record

driest

Near

normal

Record

warmest

New

Mexico

Precipitation

April 2022

Record

wettest

Near

normal

Record

driest

Temperature

April 2022

Record

coldest

Near

normal

Record

warmest

Precipitation

April 2022

Record

wettest

Near

normal

Record

driest

New

Mexico

Temperature

April 2022

Record

coldest

Near

normal

Record

warmest

New

Mexico


Those conditions, typical for the Southwest during a La Niña climate pattern, added to longer-term risks: forests left overcrowded and unhealthy by decades of aggressive fire suppression; a mega-drought that created a tinder-dry landscape; and the background warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity.

Add high winds to the mix and you have “the perfect recipe for extreme wildfire,” Dr. Williams said.

Long-term drought and warmer-than-usual temperatures have contributed to increased fire risk across much of the Western United States in recent years. And large, destructive wildfires have become more common, especially in California. As the climate has warmed, traditional fire seasons have been expanding too — starting earlier and ending later in many parts of the world.

This year in New Mexico, major fires began burning three to five weeks earlier than they normally do, according to an analysis of satellite data.

Fighting Fire With Fire

The Hermits Peak fire began in early April when a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service grew out of control. Prescribed burns are intentionally set by experts to clear out overcrowded forests, improving their health and removing excess fuels that could feed a larger wildfire.

But erratic afternoon winds propelled this burn beyond the reach of firefighters. By mid-April, the blaze had grown to more than 6,000 acres, threatening homes and triggering evacuations.

The Calf Canyon fire ignited nearby later that month and soon merged forces with the Hermits Peak blaze. On Friday, investigators announced that the Calf Canyon fire was also caused by a planned burn conducted earlier this year. The “sleeper fire” had lain dormant since late January, surviving several winter snowfalls, before roaring back to life in April.

The megafire has raised concerns about the use of prescribed burns in the state, with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham calling on the Forest Service to “take a hard look at their fire management practices and make sure they account for a rapidly changing climate.”

Citing “current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field,” the Forest Service on May 20 temporarily suspended all prescribed fire operations across the country for 90 days pending a review of best practices.



The megafire fed off New Mexico’s dry, overgrown forests. Jim Weber/Santa Fe New Mexican, via Associated Press

“The U.S.D.A. Forest Service is committed to conducting prescribed fire under safe conditions,” said Michelle Burnett, a representative for the agency, noting that in the vast majority of cases prescribed fires go as planned. “In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires. It is imperative that we learn from these experiences.”

Fire ecologists and other experts supported the safety review but stressed that prescribed burns remain crucial tools for forest management and usually help reduce the risk of major wildfires. The fact that some can escape control and grow wildly, they argued, is evidence of how primed the whole system is to burn.

“Many of these forests, naturally speaking, are adapted to burn,” said Blanca Cespedes, a fire ecologist at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, a city threatened by the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon blaze. Fire suppression policies have allowed us to live in this territory, but also created a forest that is hyper-dense in fuels” — and able to burn at a more catastrophic scale.

Owen Burney, director of New Mexico State University’s John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center, said that improving the health of forests is crucial to relieving the growing wildfire danger across the Western United States.

“There’s a huge amount of work ahead of us,” Dr. Burney said, “both on the front end to make sure we won’t have these destructive fires and on the tail end knowing we’ll have some and have to restore the land.”

“It’s daunting,” he said, but urgent.

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