Forest fire season could be muted by recent storms in New Mexico, one of wettest Mays on recordLocal NewsMonday, May 25, 2015
May is usually one of the driest months in New Mexico.
But the series of rainstorms since mid-April have significantly reduced the severity of the state’s drought while delivering another piece of good news: This summer’s fire season could be a bust in New Mexico and across much of the Southwest US.
That’s according to Rich Naden, a fire meteorologist with the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, the anchor agency that keeps tabs on the forest fire forecast and dispatches firefighting crews across a dozen states when wildfires break out.
Since April 17, as many as 4 inches of rain have fallen on parts of central New Mexico, with 1 to 2 inches across other parts of the Land of Enchantment, a deluge that’s very unusual for late spring in the high desert, Naden tells SFR.
In fact, it could be a record-breaker, he adds.
“This could turn out to be one of the wettest Mays in the state’s history,” he says. “Generally speaking, when we’re going into the Memorial Day weekend, things are usually warming up, and the forest is getting drier and drier out there.
“But temperatures have been well below normal, and I don’t have to tell you about the rain. We’ve been squashed by it.”
If wildfires were to break out on BLM and Forest Service land, they’re more likely to occur, Naden says, in the northwest part of the state, the region that has received the least amount of rain and happens to be most ripe for wildfires.
The southwestern part of New Mexico, as well, could suffer a spate of grass fires, Naden says.
But for the most part, homeowners whose adobes and abodes butt up against national forests, should be able to breathe a little easier, he says.
And yet is the forecast that there will be few, if any, wildfires this year good news?
For property owners, yes, without question.
For those who fight fires on a seasonal and basis, and whose livelihood has come to rely on them, not really.
It’s virtually Ecology 101 that forest fires are a natural part of the forest’s life cycle and that it runs contrary to nature to suppress them, although in this case, the suppression has occurred naturally with the recent rains that are 150 to 600 percent of normal, Naden says.
Hector Madrid, state fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management, says there are 110 firefighting personnel and more than a dozen wildland fire engines ready to go at a moment’s notice to protect 13.8 million acres of BLM land across the state.
“Firefighters don’t wish bad things on people, but to be good at what they do, they need to get some practice in,” says Madrid. “I’m just being honest: They do like to be out there fighting fires. It’s just what they do, and if they’re not going to be fighting them here, there’s still a good chance that they’ll be fighting them elsewhere, like in Arizona or who knows where.
“It can all happen out of the blue. Conditions can change in a day or two, especially if you get high winds.”
Certainly New Mexico is no stranger to forest fires this time of year, with the most recent blazes still on the tips of the tongues of residents who suffered through them and the firefighters who went up against them.
There was Las Conchas Fire in June 2011 that ripped through the Santa Fe National Forest a few days after the Summer Solstice, consuming 150,000 acres while delivering a double whammy: threatening the highly nuclear Los Alamos Laboratory and the town of Los Alamos. That was started by a downed power line.
For 5 straight days, it burned, becoming the largest wildfire in the history of New Mexico, only to be upstaged a year later by the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, which tore through nearly 300,000 acres in the second week of May in the Gila National Forest. That one was started by a pair of lightning strikes, which led to the merging of two fires into one great big one.
And it’s kind of ironic because the recent storms that have hovered over New Mexico are the result of merging storm systems: One from California’s Southern Pacific, which blew north and east, the other from Texas, which moved north and west, creating what Naden calls a “perfect storm over New Mexico.”
Add the El Niño factor into the mix, and suddenly the Land of Enchantment looks like the Pacific Northwest in the winter. Cold steady rain has been the norm, not the exception; roads leading up to Placer Peak in the Ortiz Mountains are caked in mud; it’s as though the monsoon season has arrived early, with a series of storms that have hit the City Different like clockwork in the late afternoons.
Memorial Day barbecues in Santa Fe appear safe, however, with weather forecasts calling for temperatures in the 60s and just a 20 percent chance of rain.