Devastating wildfires raged in northern New Mexico and the destruction could move to the southeast region in the coming months as continually dire drought conditions, unseasonably high temperatures and powerful winds worked together to keep the region on alert.
The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires merged to burn a total of almost 300,000 acres after starting on April 19, leading to evacuations throughout San Miguel, Mora, Taos and Colfax counties in the northern portion of the state.
The fire was deemed the biggest in New Mexico’s history, stoked by the drought worsening throughout the state.
The latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor as of May 10 showed all of San Miguel County was under "extreme drought" conditions, while the other counties were in either "extreme" or "exceptional" drought – the highest and most dangerous drought class reported by the monitor.
Those conditions could be even worse in the high desert of southeast New Mexico, where all of Lea County was under exceptional drought, while Eddy County was about half extreme, half exceptional.
Chaves County, neighboring both Eddy and Lea counties to the north, was almost completely covered by exceptional drought.
More than half of Lincoln County was in extreme drought, and Otero County had the best conditions ranging from "severe drought" to abnormally dry conditions.
The Monitor reported under extreme drought, fire danger is high while native vegetation dies of thirst, dries up and provides fuel for the blazes.
Under exceptional drought, public lands are closed due to fire danger and surface water sources like rivers dry up.
Statewide, about a quarter of New Mexico was in exceptional drought while 79 percent was in extreme drought.
Just three months ago, the numbers were much lower with about 3 percent under exceptional drought and 30 percent in extreme drought conditions.
Severe droughts were becoming more common in New Mexico, as the Drought Monitor reported even worse conditions a year ago – about 52 percent of the state in exceptional drought and 80 percent in extreme.
A year before that in May 2020, there were no exceptional drought conditions anywhere in the state, the drought monitor reported, with only about a half a percent of the state in extreme drought.
Similar numbers were reported in 2019, and 2018 had some exceptional and extreme drought – 20 and 60 percent, respectively.
Grass as flammable as gasoline
David Dubois, the state climatologist at New Mexico State University said a lack of moisture this year during the winter and spring was driving the southeast region toward a destructive wildfire season that could rival the north.
“We really haven’t had any significant rainfall since October,” he said. “It’s taken a tole on anything greening up. We can really see in terms of vegetation and dust storms, it’s an indication of how dry it is. We’re already in the thick of things with the drought.”
But although the area saw a few scattered grass fires this year, Dubois said it was only a matter of time, based on the conditions, before a major blaze could flare up.
“We’ve seen fire weather all across the area,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it pops up. All it takes is a really small spark to get these started.”
Dubois pointed to ongoing climate change as making the drought, and subsequently wildfires, worse each year, along with a long-term “La Nina” weather cycle which brings strong westerly winds that create hotter, dryer conditions in the American Southwest.
“We’re stuck in it,” he said. “There’s a good chance of it sticking around. That’s not good. We don’t get a lot of moisture. We get some storms, but it’s all just blowing dust.”
Monsoon rains could come this summer to green-up vegetation and reduce their risk of fueling the fires, Dubois said, and they’ll be needed for any solace from the danger.
“With higher temperatures and increased dryness, I don’t see a reprieve from wildfire risk,” he said. “I can see it (wildfires) happening more and more until we get some more moisture or a good monsoon.”
But that could still be months away, said meteorologist David Hennig with the National Weather Service’s Midland-Odessa Office.
He said the region did not see expected, and essential, early-spring showers which heightened the risk of wildfires during the typically breezy later spring, and early summer months.
That means vegetation provides a powerful fuel for the fires, which could spread as fast as 5 miles per hour or more, Hennig said.
“The fuel usually starts to green up by now,” Hennig said. “Normally, in the early spring we have a high fire risk, and it decreases later. For the most part, Eddy County, most of southeast New Mexico missed out on a lot that rain.
“There’s no moisture in any of the grasses out there. You also have triple-digit temperatures. All it takes is a breezy day and fire risk can become critical. The grass is almost as bad as gasoline. It’s very dry fuel.”
The Weather Service instituted a “red flag” warning for the Carlsbad area on Tuesday, warning Carlsbad and New Mexico's southeast region was at heightened fire risk.
“A Red Flag Warning means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now or will shortly. A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures will increase potential for fire growth,” read the warning.
Carlsbad was forecast to have high temperatures in the triple digits throughout the week, climbing to 102 degrees on Tuesday, and forecast at 99 degrees on Wednesday and 101 degrees on Thursday.
Friday was expected to cool down slightly to a high of 96 degrees.
These high temperatures hovering near the 100 degree mark were coming earlier, Hennig said and combined with the widespread dryness could lead to more fires.
“There’s been practically no rainfall in nine months. That’s ridiculously crazy,” he said. "It’s a pretty bad drought. It’s the worst drought I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here 15 years.”
And even though humidity tends to increase in the summer, Hennig said there’s no substitute for a strong monsoon.
“Normally in the summer, we’ll see moisture from the Gulf of Mexico coming up. We should see moisture coming up regardless of heat,” Hennig said. “But the only thing that’s really going to reduce the threat, long-term, is we need rain and not just an inch or two.
“We need those grasses to green back up.”
This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Southeast New Mexico wildfire risk grows as northern region burns