May 28, 2022

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Big Early Season Wildfires Tearing Through the Southwest: What You Need to Know

What’s happening

Extreme wind, warmth and dry conditions are driving large wildfires in the Southwest US with no sign of relief in the weather forecast.

Why it matters

Over 16,000 homes have been evacuated in New Mexico, with 40,000 people impacted and no end in sight.

What’s next

More hot, dry, windy weather and potential evacuations for resort communities near the town of Taos and the scientific mecca of Los Alamos.

Wildfires in the American Southwest have destroyed more than a hundred homes and small businesses, forced the evacuation of an impoverished mountain valley, closed a section of interstate and now threaten the city of Los Alamos, home to the sprawling national lab complex where the atomic age was born. 

And the majority of the destruction so far this year has come in a single state, New Mexico, and well before the typical heart of wildfire season in the western US. 

The scenes from the Southwest that have played out over the last several weeks are similar to last year’s catastrophic fires in California, Oregon, British Columbia and elsewhere. This year, unrelenting winds, drought and unseasonable warmth have settled primarily on Arizona, New Mexico and north Texas. About a half million acres have already burned across the three states, with 60% of that acreage torched via three major infernos burning in the rugged, forested mountains and valleys north of Santa Fe. 

Over 16,000 homes, primarily near the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the isolated Mora Valley, have been evacuated, with over 40,000 people directly affected by the merged Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fires, which have torched a total of over 200,000 acres as of Tuesday.  At least 166 structures, including some homes, are known to have burned so far, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday. There are no reports of lives lost due to the fire, which is currently the largest burning in the US and the second largest ever in New Mexico history. 

A massive smoke plume from the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire looms over Taos, New Mexico, on May 10.

Eric Mack

Meanwhile, the smaller Cerro Pelado fire is burning in the Jemez Mountains, placing the entire county of Los Alamos, including Los Alamos National Labs, on high alert to be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Part of the fire is actually working its way through the burn scar of the 2011 Las Conchas fire, which also threatened the community and lab. 

Thousands of firefighters from across the country are working to contain the fires, but the weather forecast offers little hope for relief, and officials are bracing for a historic battle that could last well into June or whenever seasonal monsoon moisture finally arrives. 

How many fires are there?

Six major fires are currently burning in New Mexico alone, with much of the acreage and focus currently tied to the aforementioned blazes.

Not counted among those fires is a grass fire that started Monday near the town of Santa Rosa. The wind-whipped fire led to the temporary closure of Interstate 40. The fire burned through an estimated 60 acres before being controlled, which allowed the highway to re-open.

The San Rafael Fire has burned nearly 10,000 acres near Arizona’s border with Mexico, and at least two smaller fires are also being attended in Texas, where temperatures could reach triple digits in the coming days. 

The McBride Fire also started in April and burned about 6,000 acres around the southern New Mexico resort town of Ruidoso, claiming the lives of two people as well as over 200 homes. That fire is now 100% contained. 

How did these fires start?

The Hermit’s Peak Fire started on April 6 when a prescribed burn being conducted by the Santa Fe National Forest spread outside of the planned burn area due to what the US Forest Service called “erratic winds.”

Public records disclosures revealed that the Santa Fe National Forest team that ignited the burn reviewed a weather forecast that predicted low humidity and winds gusting up to 25 miles per hour for the day that the burn started. The agency says it will conduct a comprehensive internal review of the incident.

The causes of the Cerro Pelado, Calf Canyon and McBride fires as well as the San Rafael Fire in Arizona are still under investigation. The Cooks Peak Fire, which burned through almost 60,000 acres to the north of Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon, is thought to have been human-caused but is also still under investigation. 

What’s the connection between the fires and climate change?

Myriad studies point to a connection between human-caused climate change and an increase in heat and drought across the western US that can’t be said to cause wildfires, but does make them worse or more likely to occur.

According to NASA, the West isn’t just experiencing more frequent wildfires, but “they’re also happening at the same time, putting a strain on resources. They’re also bigger, more severe, and faster than ever before, and more destructive.”

Scientists have also determined that the Southwest, in particular, is in the grips of a historic megadrought brought on by climate change.

One major factor in the current outbreak of wildfires that’s not clearly connected to climate change is the persistent and extreme winds that have plagued the region for months. At one point during extreme gusty winds, the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon fire was advancing at a mile per minute.  

The weather report in northern New Mexico over the past month has seen a red flag (severe winds) warning on all but just a few days. Those not dealing with flames or smoke from the fires have occasionally had to contend with dangerous dust storms in the largely treeless lowlands. It’s all a bit overwhelmingly apocalyptic. 

What happens next?

Some residents of areas near Las Vegas, New Mexico, have already been allowed to return to their homes as firefighting crews have managed to contain the blaze and winds have shifted. 

Meanwhile, new evacuations have been issued along the more rural and remote northern edge of the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon complex. 

Grisham acknowledged that many residents prefer to stay behind to watch over property and livestock.

“That’s risky for any number of reasons,” the New Mexico governore said in a press conference Tuesday, encouraging everyone to obey mandatory evacuation orders. “These fires move extremely fast.” 

The weather forecast for much of the Southwest calls for more heat, wind and dryness for the next 10 days, if not longer. Monsoon rains tend to arrive in mid- to late June, and officials are hunkering down for what’s shaping up to be a historic battle with one of nature’s most fearsome elements in the meantime.

To support people impacted by the wildfires, please visit All Together New Mexico.