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SANTA FE — Fanned by relentless winds and fueled by abnormally warm and dry weather, a historically large siege of fires is raging in New Mexico.
Yet the state’s fire season still has to peak — and some of the most extreme fire conditions may be coming.
The fires prompted President Biden to declare a major disaster for parts of the state Wednesday so that federal assistance can reach affected residents. The disaster zone includes Mora and San Miguel counties — about 60 miles east of Santa Fe — where the Calf Canyon fire erupted in April. The blaze has since grown to 165,276 acres, New Mexico’s second-largest fire on record.
The Calf Canyon fire is also the largest fire so far this year in the United States. Only 20 percent contained, it has burned hundreds of structures and displaced thousands of people.
Residents forced from their homes, many uninsured or underinsured, do not know what they will come back to.
The Calf Canyon fire is among six large, active blazes in New Mexico, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 243,000 acres have burned statewide so far this year, the second most in the past decade, according to the Southwest Coordination Center, while many weeks of fire season lie ahead.
Erupting much earlier than normal, New Mexico’s blazes have spread swiftly over land parched by extreme drought and seared by higher than normal temperatures.
Climate science research links rising temperatures and intensifying droughts to longer, more severe fire seasons, and this year’s conditions may portend a fiery future for not only New Mexico but much of the Southwest. Hot, arid conditions dry out vegetation quickly, making the land surface more combustible.
Weather satellites have shown enormous smoke plumes emanating from the blazes, which have caused air quality levels to tank downwind.
On April 29, a satellite captured this dynamic imagery of massive grayish-white smoke plumes emanating from the Cerro Pelado, Cooks Peak, and the combined Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires in New Mexico, while a brownish dust storm raced southward from the Colorado Plains . pic.twitter.com/jRa3EpEeOX
— Robert Gauthreaux III (@DrRGIII) May 4, 2022
As of Tuesday, the size of the Calf Canyon blaze had leaped ahead of the Las Conchas Fire, previously New Mexico’s second-largest fire, which burned 156,593 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest in 2011.
The Whitewater-Baldy Fire, which burned 297,845 acres in southern New Mexico between May and July of 2012, still ranks as the state’s largest.
But officials fear that the Calf Canyon blaze and others could grow considerably. While “tame” weather is predicted by the National Weather Service through Friday, the forecast calls for a return of dangerous conditions for the spread of fires over the weekend and into early next week.
Andy Lyon, public information officer with the Southwest Incident Management Team, said 15,000 residences are projected to be threatened over the next 72 hours all the way around the perimeter of the fire in Mora and San Miguel counties.
Inside New Mexico’s second biggest blaze
The cause of the Calf Canyon Fire is still being investigated. It merged with the Hermit’s Peak Fire just to its east on April 23.
More than 1,200 personnel are fighting the Calf Canyon blaze, including staff from surrounding city fire departments and wildland fire crews from Colorado and California. Air tankers were able to drop water and retardant on and around the fire on Tuesday to block the fire from reaching the city of Las Vegas, home to 13,000 people.
Before last Friday, when the fire size was estimated at 97,000 acres, 276 structures were counted as lost.
“After last Friday, we have no idea,” said Joy Ansley, San Miguel County manager. “We haven’t been able to get back into the burn area. It’s still too hot.”
County officials are still working to update the number of people affected by the evacuation orders but estimate that it is more than 4,000. They have been striving to give people tiered warnings — ready, set, then go — but some evacuations had to begin at 1:30 or 2 am, with no advance notice.
“As you know, sometimes, mother nature doesn’t play by the rules,” Chris Lopez, San Miguel County sheriff, said at a Tuesday evening community meeting,
State, county and state police staff have gone door to door with evacuation notices, and to encourage people reluctant to leave their homes that it really was time.
About 98 percent of the staff, students and families in the Mora Independent School District, who have an enrollment of 427, have been asked to leave their homes, said Marvin MacAuley, the district superintendent. To finish out the 16 days still left in the school year, he had planned to create remote classrooms in Las Vegas he said, “but then the fire blew up, and scattered my staff even more.”
MacAuley delivers supplies to an impromptu distribution center at a district-run preschool. He said that in these rural communities, some people wanted to stay rather than try to evacuate with their livestock.
Once, he could see a column of smoke approaching from the distribution center. A wave of police sirens came through, with speakers broadcasting “Evacuate now. You need to go.”
“It’s a traumatizing thing, especially to the kids and families, to pack up and leave their homes,” MacAuley said.
At a shelter in the Peñasco High School, evacuees from small towns on the northwestern edge of the Calf Canyon Fire have filled about half of 60 cots set up in the gymnasium. “I think their biggest stressor and concern is what happens after this,” Melissa Sandoval, a volunteer coordinator, said. “What supports are we going to be getting from the government to help us out and restore?”
Sandoval said she’s been fielding calls in the middle of the night from people searching for information on family members who live in those communities, many of which are without electricity, Internet, or cellphone service.
The area was among the first colonized in the United States, often with settlers from Spain who were issued land grants as early as the 1600s. Spanish is still commonly spoken.
The valley has long leaned on natural resources, historically fur-trading and harvesting timber, as well as farming and ranching. A fire that sweeps through will damage all of those industries, MacAuley said, “so economically, this is going to be a devastating blow. It’s generally a very poor area.”
Antonia Roybal-Mack, an attorney based in Albuquerque who grew up in Mora, said her father stayed at the family farm, hoping to protect it from the advancing fire, and finally left telling her, “I’m one guy, these are 100 foot flames. I need to leave.”
Her family has lived in the Mora area since her ancestors from Spain settled there. “My family land has been there since the 1700s, and we expect that to burn,” Roybal-Mack said.
Roybal-Mack’s hearing stories of people who are staying in hotels in Santa Fe, often because shelters cannot take pets and they will not leave them behind, but then do not have money to eat, and so are driving conveys to the shelter in Glorieta, a half hour away, for meals.
“People live off the land there,” Roybal-Mack said. “It’s men and women who raise cattle, have elk permits, cut wood. The land that’s burning is literally people’s complete livelihoods. They make their lives out of the forest.”
In recent days, occasional breaks in the weather have enabled fire crews to get significant work done, said Lopez, the San Miguel County sheriff. That is key, he said, to prepare for what is coming.
Brian Guyer, a meteorologist at the Weather Service office in Albuquerque, said the forecast calls for “critical and potentially extreme fire weather” between Saturday and Tuesday. This means a volatile combination of strong winds, warm temperatures, low humidity and unstable air in which blazes can burn out-of-control. “This is exactly what we don’t want right now,” he said.
A widespread, very dangerous fire weather pattern peaks again this weekend & early next week. A slow-moving, strong system will be responsible for very strong winds with dry conditions not going anywhere. Ongoing fires and new starts will be able to spread rapidly. #NMwx #NMFire pic.twitter.com/qQhdZkYf5t
— NWS Albuquerque (@NWSAlbuquerque) May 4, 2022
Fire communications staff from US Forest Service Southwestern Regional Office said such conditions mean the Calf Canyon fire will “continue to make runs and challenge firefighters over the next week or two.” The office added that the dry and windy conditions could last through Memorial Day and that the fire season may not end until late June or early July when monsoon rainstorms bring routine moisture.
An unusually early start to the fire season
While the fire season still has a ways to go, it began unusually early. “We’ve already burned more acreage than we do on average for an entire season, and it’s now just the first week of May,” Guyer said. “Usually our biggest fires are in May and early June.”
Guyer said that his office issued red flag warnings for dangerous fire weather “almost every day in April.”
He connected the early and elevated fire activity to persistently high winds and the prevailing drought conditions, noting that the blazes are “burning in areas where we had poor snowpack” this winter. He said the snowpack “was about half of what it should’ve been.”
Temperatures have also been warmer than normal in much of the Southwest since late March which contributes to the fire risk.
Guyer said the conditions this year fit into a long-term climate trend toward drier and warmer conditions.
The Federal government’s National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, wrote that human-caused climate change is already contributing to an observed increase in fires in the Southwest.
“Climate change has driven the wildfire increase, particularly by drying forests and making them more susceptible to burning,” the report said.
The report projects fire frequency in the Southwest could increase by 25 percent by later this century if emissions of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuel burning are not curbed.
Jason Samenow reports from Washington.