That the forecast called for a relatively mild fire season in Northern New Mexico didn’t feel right at all when Bill Morse, public information officer on the Bonita Fire near El Rito, picked up his phone on June 23 for an interview.
"We've got fires everywhere. The whole Southwest is burning," said the Arizona-based member of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, an interagency firefighting team called to step in when fires threaten watersheds, timber, people and communities.
The Bonita, a 7,494-acre lightning-caused fire that's been burning since June 3, was initially managed by wildland firefighters to play its part in restoring fire to the ecosystem, per fire science that dates to the 1930s. Then, strong winds on June 16 started pushing flames across the fire line, prompting the Carson National Forest to call for additional help and transition to suppressing the fire.
By the morning of the June 24, though, with a 100-foot-wide buffer around the fire's edge and afternoon rain on the way, the timbre had shifted.
"There's no surprises with this fire season," Morse said. "It's pretty much right on track." The Bonita Fire was turning out, after all, to be a "good fire," one that chews up dead brush and pine needles, but leaves trees alive, if scorched. Firefighters mopped up hot spots and worked to reduce troublesome smoke for area residents.
This time of year is the battle season for wildland fire fighters. Conditions shift quickly. But the long-term outlook that this winter’s snowpack and a wet, cool spring were going to make for a moderate fire season is bearing out, despite the recent smoky sunsets. The Southwest Coordination Center, an interagency logistics hub for wildland firefighting, examined drought, the amount of dead undergrowth, temperatures and precipitation, as well as projections for the monsoon, to make that call.
When the Cajete Fire started in the Jemez Mountains on June 15 and quickly grew to 1,400 acres, it was easy to wonder if the forecast might be due for revision.
"I know for myself, and I think this is true for many New Mexicans, we're a little bit on a hair trigger. So you see some smoke and you know that, in the case of Las Conchas, it burned so far, so fast—that first day something like 40,000 acres," says Zander Evans, the research director for the Forest Stewards Guild, with a doctorate from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. "It's not surprising for us, when we see Cajete, to think, 'Oh my gosh, it's happening all over again.' … And yet, it burned very differently in the end."
The fire used an uphill slope and some wind to run through some timber stands and jump Highway 4. Then, it hit against areas that had been thinned, and was bracketed by burn scars, including from Las Conchas, says Denny McCarthy, the public information officer for the fire. Two weeks later, it remains at roughly 1,400 acres, and had for days been a site for crews to practice containment. The fire never hit the Jemez River, and McCarthy credits that to local crews who arrived on scene within 15 minutes. A team from California was called in as well, part of a nationwide shuffling of fire-fighting personnel and equipment hoped to both keep wildland firefighters busy and share resources for the Forest Service, which spent more than half its 2015 budget on managing wildfire. At peak, more than 400 people and some top-level crews were working the Cajete, which scored a high profile for its proximity to the Santa Fe and Albuquerque metro areas.
The read now is that the fire resulted from a collision of a few factors; after a few days of near record-setting heat and dry air, a poorly extinguished campfire was able to take advantage of a pocket of trees.
"It was just an unfortunate situation during a brief time frame when we were kind of on that warm and dry uptick," says Rich Naden, a meteorologist with the Southwest Coordination Center.
After a cooler weekend, temperatures are expected to rollercoaster until, somewhere out there between July 5 and 15, the monsoon should arrive, delivering regular rain and higher humidity to curb fire potential.
"This is the battle we always have this time of year at the end of June, with the moisture trying to hold on and the dryness trying to take over," Naden says. "We're just in a period of rapid change."
Those thresholds make the difference between whether a manageable surface fire, as the Bonita has been, transitions to an uncontrollable crown fire, says Chuck Maxwell, predictive services program manager with the coordination center. Seasonal predictions are based on dozens, if not hundreds of fires, and with the Cajete winding down, he declared, "When we have one fire that burned for three days because it started in the driest fuels … I don't call that a miss. I call that a circumstance for management efforts."
As in, an opportunity to allow fire to do its work through the ecosystem, while controlling it to protect assets including houses, roads and endangered species habitat.
That's the approach in place at other fires burning around the state, most of them in the Gila National Forest. Part of what it means to live in a fire-adapted landscape, Maxwell argues—as in, one in which the aspen and ponderosa pine lifecycles have become accustomed to habitual fires, including those set by Native people a thousand years ago— means adjusting our expectations.
"We've got to get used to fire being out there every year," Maxwell says.
What's troubling, he says, is the ignition point. Half of wildfires are started by lightning, and half are caused by humans. The Bonita was a lightning strike. The Cajete ignited from a campfire. Even in a summer when the meadows look remarkably verdant, the forest can still burn. An extra gallon of water on the campfire to make sure it's doused is still important and—a particularly salient point with Independence Day around the corner—it's still not safe to light fireworks where they could send sparks into vegetation.
"If there's a message that comes out of this," says Evans, with the Forest Stewards Guild, "it's that we all have to keep our guard up, even in a year where things all look good."