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Complicated wildfire season in NM

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Medio Fire burns in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains northwest of Ski Santa Fe on Aug. 21. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

After a hot, dry summer, New Mexico continues to have above-average heat and little rainfall well into October. The unseasonably warm weather and the COVID-19 pandemic have made this year’s wildfire season unlike any other in recent memory.

“We did have a fair amount of fire this year,” State Forester Laura McCarthy told lawmakers Wednesday during a meeting of the legislative Land Grant committee. “The only upside to not having a monsoon season is that we didn’t have any debris flows or flooding.”

As of late September, New Mexico had 506 fires this year on state and private land, burning just over 44,000 acres. There have been 549 wildfires on federal land in New Mexico, burning nearly 88,000 acres.

This year’s wildfire season in New Mexico has been “pretty average” in terms of number of incidents and acreage burned, said Vernon Muller, Resource Protection Bureau chief for the state forestry division.

“The challenge this year is we had a real poor monsoonal flow,” Muller said. “And so we ended up going into an extended wildland fire season that has been extremely interesting during the COVID times.”

In previous years, the Forestry Division has worked with the New Mexico Corrections Department to operate the inmate work camp out of Los Lunas.

That program can typically staff up to five firefighting crews, or about 50 workers.

“Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the program was temporarily closed down this year, and we have not been able to utilize them for any fire suppression activity for the 2020 fire season,” Muller said, adding that the Corrections Department decided to prevent virus spread in the prison by limiting outside activities.

Firefighters in the state have worked to mitigate spread of the virus by using smaller work crews and training sessions, and sanitizing equipment.

There have been 45,000 wildfires nationally this year, with 7.5 million acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In August, drifting smoke from wildfires in Arizona and Colorado affected air quality in northern and central New Mexico.

The Medio Fire, north of Santa Fe, also made for hazy skies and poor air quality.

Erik Litzenberg, Santa Fe County fire chief, said that raging wildfires across the West can strain resources of rural New Mexico communities.

“Nationwide, our resources are strapped,” Litzenberg said. “They’re being overutilized, and often we’re right at the brink. That does matter for states like New Mexico and localities and land grants, because that means it’s hard to borrow resources when we have local needs.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.


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