New Mexico is burning.
May 12, 2022 11:49 PM   Subscribe

On April 6th at around 4:30, the Las Dispensas controlled burn (North of Las Vegas, New Mexico) got out of control and was declared the Hermits Peak fire by the US Forest Service. On April 19th, the fire had burned 7500 acres and was 80% contained; when a new fire began west of the Hermits Peak... the Calf Canyon fire. The 2 fires merged and by week’s end grew to 65,000 acres. As of today; May 13th, the fire has burned 259,810 acres or roughly 406 square miles (the fire perimeter is over 472 miles long). The fire has caused evacuations in Las Vegas, Mora and is expected to make a run at Red River and even Taos. The Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak fire is now the largest in New Mexico history and the state leads the US in acreage burned so far in 2022.

The Forest Service firefighting team gives daily updates on the fire’s progress (today’s can be found here, with the unhappy wrap-up at 1:05:32). These rural hispanic communities are 100 years or more and the strains of the fire and evacuations are heavy. Not only are people threatened, but also farms, pets, horses and livestock.

The fires are the result of the historic drought the state is suffering along with the bone dry humidities, lack of rain and the heavy fuel loads (i.e. dead trees and dried grasses). The biggest ingredient contributing to the fire's growth, has been the historic number of days under a Red Flag Warning (where conditions like high winds are favorable to fire activity).

There are 2 other large fires that have been burning in Northern New Mexico. The Cerro Pelado fire has burned 44,000 acres and is located near Los Alamos (threatening that area with evacuations). The Cooks Peak fire has burned 59,000 acres, is located further North near Cimarron, New Mexico and is thankfully 97% contained. Rain is not in the short term forecast and the monsoon season won’t likely arrive until mid-June.

There are several groups that are working on fire policies and protections (like the one here in Santa Fe). Some question the role of prescribed or controlled burns while the Forest Service points to the benefits of prescribed burns.

Donations for the fire's casualties and more info can be found here.
posted by jabo (24 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is fine
posted by chavenet at 2:12 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Horrible. The haze of smoke is visible way up here in Chicago.
posted by SoberHighland at 4:25 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the comprehensive update, jabo.

My heart hurts reading this. For those people not familiar with New Mexico, outside of Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerqe, it is a poor, poor state. Few resources to move if you have to evacuate, and fewer places to go if you do. Many of the smaller towns have families who have lived there for generations, if not hundreds of years. The percentage of families that own livestock - even if it’s just a horse or a few cows and a bunch of chickens - is high.

My personal opinion is that controlled burns are necessary (based on lots of conversations with older forestry and wildlife professionals in NM who talked a lot about what happened when they didn’t do controlled burns).

I send out prayers for the safety and security of all involved. May the rains come early and end the conflagration.
posted by Silvery Fish at 4:30 AM on May 13 [24 favorites]


don't forget to bookmark FIRMS. you'll be using it all year. like most of these shittily funded and mostly ignored fabulous govt services, this is under powered. you'll need to wait a bit for zoom/pan, layer changes, overlay changes to refresh.

nerds - totally cool to watch this run in fiddler.
posted by j_curiouser at 5:14 AM on May 13 [13 favorites]


I think of all the climate change predictions I was exposed to growing up, massive and frequent fires are not at all what I remember.

I don’t know if it wasn’t talked about or if I just somehow failed to encode that piece.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 5:38 AM on May 13


massive and frequent fires are not at all what I remember.

it's (in the us west) an artifact of forest management policy.

the amazon and subsahara are worrisome, and mostly human made due to global capitalism and poverty, imho.
posted by j_curiouser at 5:45 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


NM resident here. The Forest Service has a history of losing control of "controlled burns" in NM (e.g. Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos in 2000). Starting these burns during the windiest time of the year here defies common sense.
posted by shjun at 6:31 AM on May 13 [14 favorites]


Just an additional resource: FireSmoke.ca is excellent and also includes significant US coverage (as a forecasting tool must): one can see the NM fires and they're ugly.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:34 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


The entire west has a broken fire regime. Every area is different, but in general terms, there used to be frequent-but-small fires, plus occasional big fires. Much of the fires were, for many thousands of years, deliberately set and guided as part of the indigenous land management practices. The natural fire regime, as well as the comprehensive landscape management with fire as a tool, were both completely cut off in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Add in climate change, and this is what we get: enormous, out of control fires that start way earlier in the year and go way later than in years past.

The cultural losses of the NM fires (including of managed forests, acequias, towns, etc.) are heartbreaking to see, as well as the direct impacts to people, livestock, and the landscape.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:46 AM on May 13 [10 favorites]


How much blame does a surgeon deserve if he makes a small error on the operating table and their patient dies of the multiple gunshot wounds they came in with?

That's about how blame should be assigned to the burn crew imo. They are not blameless, but they are experts at what they do and doing the best anybody can correcting others' crimes. Mistakes will happen.
posted by Press Butt.on to Check at 6:47 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Although it's about controlled burns in Eastern U.S., I would recommend this April Yale 360 article as a better counter-piece to the "Some question the role..." article in the OP.
posted by Press Butt.on to Check at 6:57 AM on May 13


Wildfires are the new normal all over the world. Thanks, Climate Crisis.

I'm so sorry for New Mexico; I hope the wind lets up soon.
posted by theora55 at 7:03 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Much of the fires were, for many thousands of years, deliberately set and guided as part of the indigenous land management practices. The natural fire regime, as well as the comprehensive landscape management with fire as a tool, were both completely cut off in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Add in climate change, and this is what we get: enormous, out of control fires that start way earlier in the year and go way later than in years past.

This is exactly the same set of underlying causes behind the record-breaking Australian bushfire season of 2019, except that the brutal suppression of indigenous land management practices has been the norm for over 200 years here.

As somebody who watched neighbouring towns and huge swathes of our surrounding forests burn during those fires but whose own house luckily remained unscathed, my heart goes out to New Mexico. Hopefully your current Federal government will do a better job of helping out than the one led by our own "I don't hold a hose, mate" Prime Minister.
posted by flabdablet at 7:23 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


I was in New Mexico last month, visiting relatives. From the highway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I could see the smoke plumes rising on the horizon. It's heartbreaking.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:58 AM on May 13


Regarding the benefit of prescribed burning, it’s true that this fire and the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 were started by a controlled burn and as many locals here say, you don’t even light a match in March and April due to the high winds we get. Many of those in the communities effected by the fires argue they are locked out of harvesting the downed timber and that adds to an already tenuous relation with the Forest Service (read The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols).

But the majority of controlled burns don’t get out of hand. And removing fuel helps to keep the next fire from burning so hot it destroys everything in its path. Plenty of fires have been caused by un-doused campfires, downed power lines or the most common event, dry lightning (where a storm forms and its rain doesn’t reach the ground but the lightning does). I hiked around Hermits Peak a few years ago and the amount of dead trees from the bark beetle infestation was scary. There is so much fuel and a shorter window every year for removing it by fire.

Fire is also natural and important for forest growth, as long as it isn’t too hot. The Forest Service is doing an amazing job trying to get a handle on this fire in the worst circumstances. Crews are working 24 hours a day to build lines, run hoses or check for new hot spots. And Northern New Mexico is rallying with food, shelter and help for evacuees and their animals.

My feeling is there is a larger cause to all this. New Mexico gets around 30% of its state income from oil and gas royalties. We need to stop profiting from the very things that are adding to our climate change. And that’s a hard task in a very poor state.
posted by jabo at 8:59 AM on May 13 [12 favorites]


This is exactly the same set of underlying causes behind the record-breaking Australian bushfire season of 2019, except that the brutal suppression of indigenous land management practices has been the norm for over 200 years here.

Yes, definitely. And I wrote imprecisely -- indigenous fire management was suppressed starting with the wave of diseases that came with initial European contact and accelerated through the last couple of centuries of settlement, in many ways parallel to the Australian pattern. The early/mid twentieth century (specifically, the 1930s) is when the US started the management approach of suppressing all fires on public lands (which dominate in the western US). That management approach, along with climate change, is what gets us to the current situation.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:43 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


My feeling is there is a larger cause to all this. New Mexico gets around 30% of its state income from oil and gas royalties. We need to stop profiting from the very things that are adding to our climate change. And that’s a hard task in a very poor state.

I moved out of NM at the end of last year; prior to, I was pleased to see the Governor prioritizing building a movie/tv production base there as well as, hopefully, considering bring manufacturing back to NM. That’s a harder thing to do well because of how disperse the population is, but establishing hubs of trained gaffers, camera people, set builders, etc., throughout the state is doable.

I wonder, also, about who decides on the burn schedules and protocols. It’s accurate that indigenous communities worked a lot of this stuff out over centuries. And, as a person involved in agriculture in NM, I can tell you that a lot of the directions and advice provided by government agencies really DID NOT WORK for NM conditions. So, there was a lot of getting the advice / instruction, and doing our own research to see where the testing or advent of those proposals originated. NM ecology - rain, soil, wind, diurnal variants - are unique. What works for Oklahoma or Washington State or Vermont is not going to work there.
posted by Silvery Fish at 9:48 AM on May 13


I’m a hunter living in the SF Bay Area. I’m posting this from just outside Red Bluff, on my way north, almost to the Oregon order. I’m on a week-long trip to explore lower elevation areas along highway 96, from Willow Creek to Yreka, marking gps coords and taking pics of habitat.

The only reason I’m doing this 7 hour drive is because I’ve been pushed here by climate change and wildfires. Every year I watch my spots up and down California burn. Every year the drive gets longer. I’m hoping the Siskiyou Mountains are still wet enough to survive. If not, I’ll move on to the King Range.
posted by ryanrs at 9:58 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


I've been very concerned about the impact on the small mountain villages such as Mora and thereabouts — these are close to 100% Hispanic and a great many residents are from families that have lived on this land for two or three hundred years, dating back to the Spanish land grants of the 1700s and the Mexican land grants of the 1800s.

Hispanic New Mexican culture is distinct from other North American Hispanic cultures partly from its longevity, but mostly because of its relative isolation during that long history.

These mountain villages are special. As a native third-generation anglo, to me these villages have always been the living heart of New Mexico. They're the very intersection of the culture and the land. Along with the Pueblo peoples (several of which exist on the fringes threatened by these fires), they've defined the regional dialects, foods, and customs.

There's a lot of poverty and little economic opportunity and this will make it worse in a variety of ways, small and large.

On a personal level, my own history involves this region. I've spent time in all of New Mexico's high country, but here more than most; and my maternal grandfather was born in Las Vegas. When I was little, my dad and I fished at Morphy Lake. I also have childhood memories of the Rosiada area, and my aunt has a home there which her family visits every weekend (it's undamaged).

Climate change has transformed northern New Mexico from what I recall from my childhood. It breaks my heart.

Here is where the cub was rescued which became Smokey the Bear — near Ruidoso, in fact, which endured its own devastating fire just before these began. But it's all so much worse now. There is much less snow in the winter, the mountain valleys less lush, the streams and lakes are lower (or empty), and the fires are larger and more frequent.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:32 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]


God, I love the Pecos Wilderness. Fingers crossed.
posted by neuron at 11:10 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Lived here since the early 70’s. Never had fires back then because our winters were heavy, and it rained everyday in summer during monsoon season. I’ve never seen it so bone dry in the state. We barely had any winter to speak of this past year, and I don’t remember it raining last summer either. I’m climbing to the top of the highest ridge everyday and taking pictures of the huge smoke plumes over the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Santa Fe. Never seen anything like it.

As far as that oil and gas revenue goes, wish someone would follow the money trail on that. Seems a lot of state government higher ups are profiting big time from it, while Carlsbad locals worry about groundwater contamination from fracking. It’s always about the money and personal greed.
posted by jenh526 at 9:19 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I have family in Angel Fire, who woulda thunk?
posted by Oyéah at 11:45 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


We moved to Santa Fe in 2019. First winter (2019-2020) had real snowfall, but my sweetie was back in MN tending to her dying mom. Then we had the nonsoon summer. Then two La Niña winters in a row (no snow). But at least we had a decent monsoon here last summer. Wasn’t great, but it was something.

Really hoping for a decent monsoon this year. The NWS is already forecasting a third La Niña winter in a row, and if we don’t get some moisture this summer, there won’t be much of the beautiful mountains left that we still haven’t seen because Covid.

For those interested in finding out more, or donating, New Mexico Highlands University (in Las Vegas, NM) has a good page of fire resources which was initially aimed at their students, but has become a go-to for all sorts of locals.
posted by DaveP at 1:02 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]




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