Fire Officials: Southwest in for Busy Fire Season

March 7, 2011

The blackened swath of prairie stretches some 40 miles from the edge of Chaves County in southeastern New Mexico to the Texas state line.

Firefighters and weather forecasters are pointing to the fresh scar from last week’s nearly 65,000-acre grass fire as a sign of what’s to come in parts of the Southwest. They say much of the region already has the ingredients needed for the makings of a grueling fire season – dry and crunchy vegetation, above-normal temperatures, howling winds and little chance for any significant rainfall in the foreseeable future.

Wind-driven wildfires have already scorched more than 190 square miles of prairie and destroyed scores of homes in West Texas. In New Mexico, more than 125 square miles have burned along with barns, storage sheds and other structures. Arizona has yet to see any major wildfires in the first two months of the year, but officials say conditions are expected to worsen across southeastern Arizona and in New Mexico up through the middle Rio Grande Valley.

“Until we get significant precipitation in here, we are in a constant battle with possible fire danger and it never ends,” said Tim Shy, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “It goes on day after day and week after week, and we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball right now.”

In New Mexico, last fall was dry and winter storms have brought little more than record freezing temperatures thanks to a La Nina weather pattern that has repelled moisture from much of the state. January marked the lowest precipitation totals for New Mexico as a whole since record-keeping began more than a century ago. February also saw below-average snow and rain.

The latest drought reports classify the situation in much of southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and all of southwest Texas as severe, and forecasters said any rain that does come with spotty showers or thunderstorms that are able to form over the next two months likely won’t be enough to make up the region’s moisture deficit.

There is a glimmer of hope in early predictions of a good monsoon season, said Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division.

“We’re hoping, but right now they’re just predictions. There’s no way to know,” he said.

It’s been a couple of years since New Mexico experienced such an early and active fire season, Ware said.

This season seemed to kick into high gear in just the last week with a handful of human-caused grass fires in the southeastern corner of the state. The Dog Canyon Fire near Carlsbad came first, burning more than 3,400 acres. Then there were the Colonial and Enterprise fires near Lovington. The Colonial was kept small but it burned nearly a dozen structures, while the Enterprise raced across miles of grassland toward Texas with the help of 50 mph gusts.

There were also fires near Artesia and Elida.

The blazes forced Lea County officials to call a special meeting Friday to consider declaring a state of emergency in an effort to seek funds to help with the situation.

In Arizona, things may be dry, but forecasters said that state is less vulnerable because it doesn’t see the same intense spring winds as southeastern New Mexico.

While the potential is there for a disastrous fire season, the State Forestry Division and other fire departments across New Mexico are focusing on educating the public about the danger. Ware pointed out that the recent fires in southern New Mexico were caused by people.

“That 64,000-acre fire we had on Sunday definitely needs to be a sign for people of things that could come if we’re not careful,” he said.

There’s also concern in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city. It’s bordered by grasslands on one side, mountain foothills on the other and through the middle is a ribbon of dense vegetation along the Rio Grande.

Lt. Jeremiah Hansen, the Albuquerque Fire Department’s wildland program manager, said moisture helped boost the growth of that vegetation last year and deep freezes over the winter helped it dry out and cure. And with little snow or rain, the area is now behind the precipitation curve.

“We’re in a pretty dangerous state right at the moment,” Hansen said, adding that he expects it to be a busy fire year.

Aside from making a plea to the public to be careful this spring and summer, Albuquerque firefighters also plan to patrol wildland areas based on threat levels and fuel conditions, Hansen said.

In the mountains east of Albuquerque and elsewhere, Ware said state and local fire officials have tried to work with private landowners to limit fire danger and establish community wildfire protection plans.

State and federal officials have also been using prescribed fire to clear out dry, overgrown vegetation, but the recent weather conditions have forced some projects to be put on hold.

Ed Polasko, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said there could be some afternoon “hit-and-miss showers” this spring. At best, he said, they could offer a one-day reprieve from the fire danger.

The real relief could be as far away as the summer monsoon season, forecasters said.

“The message is totally clear right now that burning for the foreseeable future is a real dicey activity, and people should be very, very careful with fire,” Shy said.

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