CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the correct title for Rich Sack.
Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Rich Sack, acting fire planner for the Santa Fe and Carson national forests in northern New Mexico, works his way through a mental checklist and ends up with a feeling that this could be a pretty scary fire season for New Mexico.
“We’ve got severe drought conditions in northern New Mexico; snowpack at almost historic lows; and an exceptional grass crop from a pretty wet spring, summer and fall in 2017,” Sack said.
“We’ve got this tall thick grass that is unseasonably dry for this time of year and that allows fire to propagate very quickly. And we have predictions for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation this spring. All of this taken together translates to a forecast of above-level fire danger – at least through the spring.”
After several years of relatively tame fire seasons, conditions are ripe for New Mexico to face a wilder ride this time out. Fire season can run from early spring to late fall and is already underway this year.
The Stateline Fire started March 8 in Union County, north of Clayton, and had burned 17,662 acres of state and private land in New Mexico, 10,331 acres in Colorado and 112 acres in Oklahoma as of Friday morning, when the fire was reported to be 80 percent contained.
Wendy Mason, spokeswoman for New Mexico State Forestry, said the Stateline Fire is proof of how dry New Mexico is. She said that, as of Thursday, State Forestry, which is responsible for battling blazes on state and private land, had responded to 108 fires, charring thousands of acres, since Jan. 1. That compares to 76 fires during the same period last year.
Hope hinges on what may be a better-than-normal monsoon season – but that doesn’t arrive until mid- to late summer.
“There are some signs we could have a fairly robust monsoon season,” said Andrew Church, fire weather meteorologist for the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service. “That could shorten up the fire season on the back end. We could see an earlier end to the fire season.”
The official monsoon season in North America is June 15 to Sept. 30. In New Mexico, Church said, the wettest stretch is typically June 15 to Sept. 15 in the south and July 1 to Sept. 15 in the central and northern parts. In an average monsoon season, Albuquerque gets 3.59 inches of rain.
Church said the good news is that La Niña, the weather pattern caused by lower-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, is fading fast. La Niña is responsible for New Mexico’s abnormally dry winter.
The bad news, Church said, is that La Niña left its mark in mountain snowpacks that are way below normal.
“All the snowpacks are in pretty bad shape,” he said.
Hotter and faster
Church said the snowpacks in the Pecos Wilderness east of Santa Fe and in the Gila River watershed in southwest New Mexico are at 4 percent of normal. The Rio Chama basin in north-central New Mexico has the most abundant snowpack at 43 percent of normal.
Todd Haines is Bernalillo District forester for State Forestry. The Bernalillo District covers 6.6 million acres in Bernalillo, Cibola, McKinley, Valencia, Sandoval, Torrance, Los Alamos and Santa Fe counties. Haines said the dismal snowpack situation spells trouble for the mountain forests.
“It’s prime fire season up in the high country, fires will burn hotter and faster,” he said. “The small stuff, grass and pine needles, burns fast all the time. But, this year, the larger diameter logs, not saturated by snowpack, will burn faster than normal, too.”
Brent Davidson, fire management officer for the Sandia District of the Cibola National Forest, said the lack of snowpack and the abundance of grasses means wildfires this year are as likely to burn on the peaks as they are on the plains. Considering the adverse conditions, he said one of the best things fire managers such as himself can do is remove potential problems by felling trees to thin out forests and employing prescribed or controlled burns to eliminate fuel buildup.
“We did just under 500 acres of prescribed burns in the Sandia District in the fall,” he said.
The Las Cruces District of the Bureau of Land Management has prescribed burns planned for Socorro and Otero counties this week. Working with Holloman Air Force Base, the BLM plans to do the burns on the Red Rio Bombing Range, on White Sands Missile Range about 18 miles west of Carrizozo, and on the Centennial Bombing Range about 20 miles northeast of Oro Grande.
Mark Bernal, the BLM Las Cruces District fire management officer, said the intent is to burn out grasses about the bombing ranges to reduce the likelihood that fires that begin on the ranges will spread beyond them.
Ricky Cox, BLM Las Cruces District fuels specialist, said prescribed burns are the positive side of fire.
“We are trying to take the opportunities to use fire when it is the right tool in the box,” he said.
Ryan Whiteaker, fire staff officer for the Lincoln National Forest in southeast New Mexico, said there has not been a significant fire in Lincoln during the four years he has been assigned to the forest.
“But we are definitely in dry conditions now and geared up for a potent, busy fire season,” he said. “All engines will be staffed and ready to go, our air-tanker base (at the Alamogordo airport) is open and ready to go, we have two hot-shot crews starting this weekend and they will be ready to go after a week of training. We are doing public outreach, asking people to watch their campfires and make sure the chains on their trucks aren’t dragging.”
The Weather Service’s Church notes that if hope is hooked on an active monsoon season, luck might be linked to unanticipated but always-possible spring moisture.
“One thing to keep in the back of your mind is one storm system, slow moving in March, April or May, a good soaking storm that is not going to make up for the snowpack but could put a dent in the fire season for sure – especially if we get some mountain snow and lowland rain.”
Haines of State Forestry said firefighters call those unexpected wet kisses timely intrusions of moisture.
“Just enough to get us to monsoon season,” he said.