Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Just 400 acres have burned on state, private land in 2024, but NM urges caution this fire season • Source New Mexico

More than 70 wildfire starts so far this year on state and private land have burned just 400 acres, the lowest acreage consumed by fire compared with the same period over the last three years. But that doesn’t mean residents should rest easy.

“We’re getting lucky,” state Forestry spokesperson George Ducker told Source New Mexico in an interview, “that these starts aren’t spreading.”

By March 28, 2022, 90 fire starts had already burned through 12,000 acres (about 19 square miles), according to state data of private and state land. In the same period in 2023, 86 fires had already burned about 6,500 acres (about 10 square miles).

The state could be on the cusp of another season of wildfires, particularly the eastern edge of New Mexico, according to forecasts. To prevent avoidable damage, the state Forestry Division has released tips every day this week for residents, part of the annual Southwest Wildfire Awareness Week. 

With 20 active fires in a single April day, N.M. braces for longer, more dangerous season

A Southwest fire forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center released March 14 predicts above-normal fire potential in eastern and southern New Mexico in April. Just over the state’s eastern border, Texas endured its biggest-ever wildfire, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, earlier this month.

“That was a grass fire that just got buffeted by winds. And, again, we were very lucky,” Ducker said. “That could have eastern New Mexico, without a doubt. It just happened to be in Texas.”

In May, the increased wildfire risk follows the Rio Grande northward to Albuquerque. Clearing invasive species from around your land before then is a good idea, Ducker said.

“For folks who live in the bosque, it might be a good idea now or next month to go out there and do some defensible space work, maybe start taking some chainsaws to that salt cedar [or] the tamarisk if you’re near the water,” Ducker said.

The tips for residents are “common sense,” Ducker said, but are necessary reminders to prevent wildfire or safely avoid its destruction. Forestry asks residents to prepare go-bags, familiarize themselves with the “Ready, Set, Go!” evacuation protocols, do thinning around their homes and be careful using heavy equipment or stamping out cigarettes.

The threat of high winds is one Forestry officials have discussed more often recently, Ducker said. The 2022 wildfire season, in which the two biggest fires in state history ignited, was propelled by historic wind events, with huge gusts launching wildfires on unpredictable, destructive paths. So Ducker recommended keeping an eye on wind forecasts when using equipment in wildland areas.

Since 2022, “equipment use” has been deemed the cause of 43 of 249 wildfires – a little more than 17% – ignited on state or private lands, according to Forestry data. It’s a vague term, Ducker acknowledged, but one he interprets as using power tools, chainsaws or other machines that can shoot sparks.

The monsoon largely failed to materialize last year, Ducker said, recalling afternoons of midsummer “constipated clouds” that delivered little precipitation. That meant little soil moisture to rein in fire growth but also little fuel growth – a “net zero” in terms of wildfire risk. So it’s hard to say what exactly that means for this upcoming wildfire season.

“For the most part, it’s just looking like business-as-usual, which means we’re prepared,” he said.

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