It’s monsoon season in Santa Fe and, after an early summer of fires and drought, the rains are a welcome relief. They’ve dampened some of the fire danger; watered the parched earth; and on Friday, the Santa Fe National Forest was able to reopen in many areas under Stage I fire restrictions. But the drought is still a reality. The lightning caused by monsoon-season storms sparks new fires, and the floods and landslides caused by the rain threaten communities already affected by the fires. So far this year, 48 fires have ignited in the Santa Fe National Forest alone, burning more than 19,000 acres. SFR spoke with SFNF Assistant Public Affairs Officer Lawrence Luján about this season’s fires and what to expect as the dog days roll on.
SFR: How does this year compare to years past?
Luján: The 2013 fire season has proven to be challenging in its severity and fire conditions. Quantifying fire season severity, and comparing one year with another, depends entirely on context and what is measured. For most in the firefighting community, the number of fatalities is the most critical measure of a fire season’s severity. This year, nationally, we have lost 22 firefighters. [Locally,] spot fires were seen up to five miles ahead of the fire—normally, they are up to about two miles.
Is monsoon season making a difference?
Yes, the monsoon rains—moisture, cooler temperatures and increasing relative humidity levels—have decreased fire danger and fire activity. Significant fire activity typically decreases in July associated with the summer monsoon season. Wetter and cooler weather has reduced fire danger/fire activity; therefore, we have reopened portions of the forest. Those areas that are open are under Stage I fire restrictions. Some areas of the forest will remain closed due to recent wildfires and potential flooding. Areas of the forest affected by the Tres Lagunas, Thompson Ridge and Jaroso fires will remain closed for public safety.
What’s the outlook for the rest of the season?
Fire conditions are very fluid and are monitored daily. Right now, with the current moisture, there is little or no risk for large fires. A season-ending event includes sustained wetting rains and cooler temperatures. The [Jaroso] fire is still being monitored by air. The fire is now 25 percent contained. The fire behavior is minimal, and the growth potential is low.
Now that the storms are here, is lightning a threat? Or is the potential of lightning-caused fires reduced by the moisture?
The moisture and lightning both cause impacts. We are seeing an increase in small lightning-caused fires. Moisture plus a fire scar (area burned by a wildfire) equals flooding. Areas downstream of a recent fire scar are at risk of flooding. Wildfires increase the potential for flash flooding, mud and debris flows that could impact several communities, homes, roads and other infrastructure adjacent to and downstream from the burned area. Monsoon season in New Mexico often brings heavy rain, so people need to be alert.
Luján notes that both the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge fires were both caused by downed power lines—that is, human-caused. As Smokey says, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” Visit fireadapted.org to learn how.