Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Graduate News SW Center

New Mexico’s Megafires Mark a Turning Point

Tom’s Dispatch

Bill deBuys, is a former William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies fellow, an environmentalist, conservationist, and writer.

For People, Land, and the Forest Service

Firefighters don’t normally allude to early English epics, but in a briefing on the massive Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico, a top field chief said, “It’s like Beowulf: it’s not the thing you fear, it is the mother of the thing you fear.” He meant that the flames you face may be terrifying, but scarier yet are the conditions that spawned them, perhaps enabling new flames to erupt behind you with no escape possible. The lesson is a good one and can be taken further. If tinder-dry forests and high winds are the mother of the thing we fear, then climate change is the grandmother.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire blazed across 534 square miles of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost extension of the Rockies. Although the fire was the largest in New Mexico’s history, it had competition even as it burned. This spring, the Black Fire, a megafire of nearly equal size, devoured forests in the southern part of the state. The combined area of the two fires is roughly equal to that of Rhode Island, the American standard for landscape disasters on a colossal scale.

Records amassed by the Forest Service indicate that, at the fire’s peak, 27,562 people were evacuated from their homes. Four hundred and thirty-three of those homes were destroyed and more damaged, while an even greater number of barns, garages, sheds, and other outbuildings were also lost. The unquantified property damage, including destroyed power lines, water systems, and other infrastructure, will surely exceed the nearly billion dollars in damages arising from the Cerro Grande fire of 2000, which torched more than 200 residential structures in the city of Los Alamos. Meanwhile, the heartbreak resulting not just from destroyed homes but lost landscapes — arenas of work, play, and spiritual renewal, home in the broadest sense — is immeasurable.

The Hermits Peak fire began April 6th with the escape of a prescribed fire ignited by the U.S. Forest Service in the mountains immediately west of Las Vegas, New Mexico. A few days later and not far away, a second, “sleeper” fire, which the Forest Service had originally ignited in January to burn waste wood from a forest-thinning operation, sprang back to life. It had smoldered undetected through successive snowfalls and the coldest weather of the year. This was the Calf Canyon fire. Driven by unprecedented winds, the two fires soon merged into a single cauldron of flame, which stormed through settled valleys and wild forests alike, sometimes consuming 30,000 acres a day.

The blaze marks a turning point in the lives of all who experienced the fire. It also marks a transformative change in the ecological character of the region and in the turbulent history of the alternately inept and valiant federal agency that both started and fought it.

The Turning of a Climate Tide

Two and a half decades ago, a long-running wet spell came to an end in the Southwest. Reservoirs were full, rivers were meeting water needs, and skiers and irrigators alike gazed with satisfaction on deep mountain snowpacks. The region’s forests were stable, if overgrown.

Then came a dry winter and, on April 26, 1996, an unextinguished campfire in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains flared into a major conflagration that came to be known as the Dome Fire. I vividly remember the startling whiteness of its mushroom-shaped smoke plume surging into the sky, a sight all the more unnerving because the fire was burning within rifle shot of Los Alamos National Lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. READ MORE