A wet blanket for fire season? Cold, wet winter and spring could mean less wildfire risk
Smoke from wildfires in Colorado has impaired air quality in northwest New Mexico.
Moisture, cool temperatures combine to reduce chances of blazes
FARMINGTON — Mark Thibideau, the fire information officer for the Southwest Region Office of the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque, says the term "fire season" is one that largely has fallen out of favor around his agency.
"It used to be from June through September, but fire conditions change yearly, and the U.S. Forest Service has given it a new name — fire year," he explained. "We don't really have a fire season because we are a fire resource. As fire conditions change, we reallocate resources to address locations most in need."
Perhaps it's better to think of that old-fashioned fire season as something that has evolved into a moving target, one that can crop up, or dissipate, at unexpected times. With the calendar having turned to June — historically, the hottest and driest month across most of New Mexico — the likelihood of wildland fires in the state usually begins to peak.
But much of New Mexico seems to be experiencing a reprieve from those blazes this year, thanks largely to an unusually cold and wet winter and spring that has kept the elements that contribute to wildfires largely at bay.
To be sure, no one is saying the state will be free of wildfires this summer. In fact, the Gila National Forest is experiencing a handful of blazes, and forest officials there issued a June 5 advisory setting the fire danger as high.
But in other parts of the state, particularly the northern mountains, a heavy snowpack that has lingered because of unseasonably cool temperatures has tamped down fears of another summer of smoke-filled skies and blackened forests.
"We've been lucky to have some rain in some areas," said Thibideau, who works for an office that oversees the national forests and national grasslands in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma. "Our long-term drought has decreased across the Southwest over the last six months. We're optimistic about that and the chances of having a less-active fire season across the Southwest."
Andrew Church, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the outlook for the northern and central parts of the state is especially encouraging.
"The majority of the state looks like it will not have much, if any, of a fire weather season," he said, adding that there is still a significant snowpack at elevations of more than 9,000 feet in the northern half of the state.
Even many of the lower elevations are in good shape, he said, adding that the relatively abundant precipitation and cool temperatures much of the state experienced over the past several months has left the ground cover less susceptible to fire.
Those fuels are expected to dry out as the month progresses, but with the start of monsoon season only a month or so away, the wildfire window may not remain open long, Church said.
"We could have a fire season that is only a week or two long in late June, so things are looking good in terms of the weather," he said.
Farewell to the drought
The moisture situation across much of New Mexico is dramatically different from what the state was facing in late 2018. A lack of moisture had left many parts of New Mexico dry as a bone, including the northwest corner, which was mired in extreme or exceptional drought, the two most severe classifications, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Now, six months later, those dire conditions are largely a memory. All or parts of San Juan, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, Cibola and Catron counties are classified as being in moderate drought, as are parts of Lincoln, Chavez, Eddy and Otero counties in southern New Mexico. But that classification is a marked improvement over their condition for much of last year, and that has led to a much-improved outlook in terms of their vulnerability to wildfire.
"Obviously, this is night and day from where we were last year," San Juan County Fire Department Chief Craig Daugherty said, noting the irony of his message to county commissioners earlier in the week. Daugherty had found it necessary to publicly warn county residents of the dangers of fast-moving rivers and streams that are swollen with snowmelt. Last year in early June, he said, his warning to the commission was about the dangers of wildfire.
Daugherty acknowledged he was surprised by how quickly San Juan County had emerged from the exceptional or severe drought.
"I thought it was going to take us years to pull out of that drought we were in," he said. "It blew me away. But it's a good thing to have made that transition that quick."
Church said those kinds of turnarounds are not unheard of, especially when the Southwest is experiencing an El Niño weather pattern, as it did this winter and spring. That phenomenon frequently leads to increased moisture for this part of the country, and that's exactly what took place this time.
What's been surprising, Church said, is the duration of this El Niño.
"What's rare about this one is that it has lasted into the summer and not weakened," he said. "We're curious to see what's going to happen with the monsoon because of that."
Thibideau noted the El Niño seemed to have a greater impact on New Mexico than its western neighbor.
"Arizona is worse off than New Mexico at this point," he said, referencing a color-coded map that charts fire vulnerability and shows most of Arizona shaded in red. "New Mexico is showing mostly green. That's a great change from last year."
As of May 31, Thibideau said, 74 fires had been reported on national forest land in Arizona, while only 30 had been reported in New Mexico.
Changing of the seasons
The severity of wildfire activity in New Mexico varies greatly from year to year, as does the period when that activity reaches its peak. But Thibideau said the largest wildfires reported in the state for the years from 2014 through 2018 all got their start between the middle of May and the middle of July.
The 2014 Signal Fire, which burned 5,484 acres in the Gila National Forest, was reported on May 11. The 2015 Red Canyon Fire, which burned 17,843 acres in the Cibola National Forest, was reported on June 15. The 2016 North Fire, which burned 42,102 acres in the Cibola National Forest, was reported on May 21. The 2017 Corral Fire, which burned 20,350 acres on the Gila National Forest, was reported on July 13. And the 2018 OK Bar Fire, which burned 61,620 acres on the Gila National Forest, was reported on May 13.
There has been some light wildfire activity in southern New Mexico already this year. Marta Call, the public affairs officer for the Gila National Forest, said that while daytime high temperatures there are not much different than anywhere else in New Mexico — the middle to high 80s — the forest has seen several days of wind gusts between 20 and 40 mph. That prompted forest officials to issue the high fire danger advisory. The forest also has been receiving lightning strikes that have started three wildfires.
As of June 6, the New Mexico Fire Information website was reporting only a handful of active wildfires on national forest land in the state. The Lone Mountain Fire, caused by a lightning strike and reported on May 26, had burned 21 acres on the Lincoln National Forest. The Spring Fire, caused by a lightning strike and reported on June 5, had burned 10 acres on the Gila National Forest. The Reynolds Fire and Roaring Fire, both caused by lightning, were reported on June 5. The had burned a total of 45.5 acres on the Gila.
Call said those three fires that began in recent days on the Gila represented a somewhat tardy start to the forest's fire season.
"It is a little bit later," she said. "Usually, we start seeing something about the third week of May, right before Memorial Day."
Still, Gila officials are expecting a normal fire season this year, she said, and they plan to take advantage of those conditions to get some prescribed burns done to reduce the buildup of fuels on the forest floor. Already, forest officials have conducted a handful of burns and achieved the desired results, particularly with one on Indian Peaks.
Nevertheless, forest officials approach those projects with caution, she said.
"A prescribed burn is exactly what it says," Call said. "Do we have the right weather, humidity, wind and fuel moisture? If everything lines up, we can put fire on the landscape."
She said Gila officials are very experienced at determining whether conditions are favorable for such burns.
"The Gila is really good at doing this," she said. "We have a 30-year history of doing that."
Denise Alonzo, acting public affairs officer for the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado, said officials at her forest hope to be able to accomplish a great deal this summer with prescribed burns.
"For the last hundred years, we've suppressed all fire, so we do have a lot of catch-up," she said. "But it needs to be done strategically so it doesn’t put anybody in harm's way. … We don't want negative results."
Where there's smoke …
Those prescribed burns planned for forests across the Southwest mean there will still be some smoke in the skies this summer. But it won't be anything like what many New Mexicans experienced last summer, when a thick, brown or yellow haze was the norm in some parts of the state.
Even though the 416 Fire, which started early last June on the San Juan National Forest north of Durango, Colorado, wasn't located in New Mexico it produced smoke that settled into the Animas River Valley at night and made its way downstream to Aztec and Farmington. That prompted instances in which local officials felt compelled to issue air-quality advisory warnings to residents, encouraging them to stay inside and keep their windows closed.
Alonzo said it's unlikely the prescribed burns going on in the San Juan this summer would produce those kinds of effects.
"We burn on a much smaller scale," she said. "But wildfire can grow large very quickly, consuming a lot of acreage. And wildfire can produce a lot of smoke."
Just as they are for many parts of New Mexico, conditions in Alonzo's forest are much different than they were last year. She said the amount of moisture in the forest in the first week of June was typically what would be found during the second week of May.
"So we're very fortunate we had this much snowfall, these cool temperatures, this much precipitation for so long this summer," she said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Snotel website, the snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins was 1,314 percent of normal and 547 percent of average as of June 5.
"We're significantly different than we were at this time last year," Alonzo said. "We'd don't expect the snow to melt off until the end of July at higher elevations. The chances of significant wildfires are not expected this summer at higher elevations."
Alonzo said some smaller, lightning-caused blazes already have broken out at lower elevations, but their severity has been limited.
"They haven't spread very far or very fast, and they've been contained by fire resources," she said.
The story is largely the same in the Santa Fe National Forest. Acting public affairs officer Julie Anne Overton said in addition to the healthy precipitation the forest received over the winter and spring, the region has been drawing instances of additional moisture every five to seven days for the past several weeks, and that has helped keep forest fuels moist.
"This is not our typical fire season," she said. "Normally, we don't get those pulses of moisture, and we got a lot of them this year."
Last year, the Santa Fe National Forest was so dry it had to be closed by forest officials from June 1 through July 9. That was not a welcome development for a forest that draws a heavy number of outdoor recreation enthusiasts, she said.
This year, the fire danger on the forest is listed as low to moderate. Overton said officials expect the forest to begin to dry out toward the end of June, and they are a little apprehensive about preliminary forecasts that indicate the monsoon season could arrive a little later this year, increasing the wildfire chances on the forest.
But that's not much of an issue right now. In fact, the moisture content in most of the forest is so high, Overton noted, that officials have been forced to delay some prescribed burn projects simply because the targeted fuels are too wet. That expected drying-out period should make conditions for prescribed burns more favorable, she said, but that doesn't guarantee any projects will be completed before monsoon season arrived, bringing with it an expected sharp increase in lightning-sparked fires.
Those relatively wet conditions could lead to a difference in how fire managers approach those blazes, she said.
"This year, because of conditions that are low to moderate for fire danger, it's possible that if we do get one of those lightning starts, maybe we'll let that fire burn for resource objectives," she said, explaining that such blazes sometimes can be managed the same way a prescribed burn would be, reducing the concentration of fuels on the forest floor.
That doesn't mean fire managers will simply walk away from such a blaze, Overton said.
"We want to make sure it goes where we want it to go," she said.
Back on the San Juan, the concerns of forest officials have more to do with the dangers posed by too much snow to backcountry visitors. Many trails remain covered by avalanches or fallen trees, and even some areas that usually are accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles this time of year are covered by snow, debris or both, Alonzo said.
A helicopter was commissioned to fly over the higher elevations in the forest on June 6 to examine conditions in areas that were impossible to reach by vehicle, Alonzo said.
"It's pretty impressive to see some of the snow that's still up there," she said, describing the images that were captured from that excursion. "Anybody traveling to higher elevations should expect difficult conditions. We just don't know quite what conditions are like until we go out there and look at it. Even us, as the Forest Service, don't have a good idea at this point."
It cuts both ways
The NWS was still several days away from issuing its monsoon forecast for this summer by June 5, but Church said, generally speaking, expectations call for a near-average to above-average monsoon for New Mexico this year. Conditions were looking more favorable for monsoon activity in the eastern part of the state, he said.
Thibideau said one of the advantages of the Southwest having a comparatively mild fire season so far is that fire managers have not had to expend a lot of manpower or resources to fighting blazes. That means there's a good reserve of both remains as the summer progresses.
But abundant moisture can be a double-edged sword, as many of the officials interviewed for this story acknowledged. In the short term, it certainly lessens fire activity. But in the long term, it feeds the growth of so-called "soft fuels" — grasses and shrubs such as sage brush — that can give a small blaze the energy it needs to turn into a formidable one.
Daugherty said the crop of cheat grass — an invasive species that pops up in the early spring but dries out and turns to tinder in the middle of June — is likely to be a big challenge this for fire managers who operate beyond national forests.
"It's highly flammable, and it looks like there's going to be a bumper crop," he said. "It's got me concerned about what it's going to do."
Daugherty said it won't be long before the cottonwood trees that line many waterways across the state begin producing "snow" — the cotton-like fibers that sprout from the trees and wind up on the ground — in prodigious amounts. He said those highly flammable fibers burn so hot, they burn blue, much like an alcohol fire.
"So we encourage people to continue to be careful when using any kind of incendiary device and pay attention to the weather conditions, especially wind," he said.
Thibideau urged those who live in the wildland-urban interface to do what they can to make their property less vulnerable to wildfire.
"It's stuff like making sure the grass isn't tall around homes and keeping it green, if you can," he said, adding it's also a good idea not to have any trees within 100 feet of a home and having good spacing in between them.
He noted that much of the brush common to New Mexico, including sage and juniper, ignites easily in wildfire situations and should be kept away from structures.
"I think as we get closer to the significant, more dangerous fire season, we just want to really encourage people to be mindful with fire use and check local restrictions and abide by them," he said.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.
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