New Mexico Wildfire Now a Record-Setting ‘Megafire’, Budget Cuts In Congress May Undermine Federal Response


by Andrew Freedman, via Climate Central

The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history continues to burn, having already charred an area larger than New York City. Known as the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex, the wildfire has become another in a series of “megafires” to torch the American West due to an unprecedented combination of drought conditions, climate change, and alterations in land-management practices. To make matters worse, according to The Guardian newspaper, congressional budget cuts may restrict the federal government’s firefighting efforts during what is widely expected to be a busy wildfire season.

The Whitewater-Baldy Complex is burning in New Mexico’s rugged and mountainous Gila Wilderness, an area with steep terrain that has rendered much of the fire off limits to firefighters. Instead of attacking it from within, firefighters are trying to dig in around it, hoping to slow its spread.

The megafire is the result of a merger of two separate, relatively modest-sized fires. When the two merged in late May, the fire dramatically expanded, burning 70,000 acres in just one day. As of Friday, the fire had burned 216,000 acres, and was only 10 percent contained. More than 1,200 personnel were battling the fire. There have been no fatalities or major injuries.

The fire has surpassed New Mexico’s record fire, which occurred just last year. The Las Conchas fire burned more than 156,000 acres and came perilously close to Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez took a helicopter tour of the fire on May 31. “She described the terrain as “impossible,” saying there was no way for firefighters to directly attack the flames in the rugged areas of wilderness,” the Associated Press reported. She warned that it would continue to burn more acres as firefighters struggle to contain the blaze.

Much of New Mexico is experiencing drought conditions. Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor.

As Climate Central reported on May 23, the 2012 fire season is likely to continue the trend of severe wildfire seasons in the Southwest, due largely to the prevalence of long-term drought conditions in the region. Long-burning, massive wildfires have become more common in the U.S. recent years.

In fact, the recent Southwestern megafires stand out as unusual in the context of the past 1,500 years in that region, according to a recent study. The study found that land-management changes, such as years of fire suppression activities that stifled small fires, thereby priming forests for larger blazes, have combined with climate change to create forests that are altogether different — and which burn differently — from what existed in this area for generations.

“The U.S. would not be experiencing massive large-canopy-killing crown fires today if human activities had not begun to suppress the low-severity surface fires that were so common more than a century ago,” said Christopher I. Roos, an assistant professor in the SMU Department of Anthropology, according to Science Daily.

— Andrew Freedman is a senior science writer for Climate Central, focusing on coverage of extreme weather and climate change. Prior to working with Climate Central, Freedman was a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and Greenwire/E&E Daily.

This piece was originally published at Climate Central and was reprinted with permission.

JR: Here’s more from the Guardian story, “Wildfire budget cuts in Congress put communites in danger, experts warn“:

Fire experts are warning that $512m in congressional budget cuts could leave communities dangerously exposed in an early and active fire season.

Such warnings have sharpened with the early onset of this year’s fire season, and the record-setting outbreak in New Mexico.

Experts fear the shortfall will leave fire crews scrambling for resources, and force government agencies to dip into other non-fire budgets to cover the gap….

But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.

Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.

Campaigners say that leaves the federal government agencies responsible for preventing and putting out wildfires under-funded – especially given projections suggesting a rise in wildfires over the next 20 years.

Related Climate Progress posts:

10 Responses to New Mexico Wildfire Now a Record-Setting ‘Megafire’, Budget Cuts In Congress May Undermine Federal Response

  1. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Re republican legislative nihilism, it seems we’ve at last entered the phase where the karma runs over the dogma. Or in this case, sets fire to it, making it increasingly difficult to cling to.

    Roll on the next stage, where they start turning on eachother, seeking scapegoats. In this context, does the senile Inhofe actually have any friends ?



  2. wili says:

    With that part of the country predicted to get particularly dry in the coming decades, it seems likely that these new, vast burn areas will never return to the level of vegetation they had pre-fire. And these large, desolate areas will start to create their own local climate that further inhibits rain in the region.

    We are seeing CC (and some other human foibles) starting to permanently change the basic pattern of ecosystems on the planet.

    And of course these fires add lots of CO2 to the atmosphere, much of which will not go back into the normal biological carbon cycle if these forests never fully recover.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘God sent Noah the rainbow sign-no more water, the fire next time’. Time’s up.

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    The practical question is, what can we do about the next megafire?

    1. Congress should bite the bullet and get more air tankers and more equipment for what we need.

    2. During our period of “austerity”, which means we’re trying and failing to repay a crushing national war debt that we will surely default on after we struggle for many years, we should be prepared to mobilize thousands of human beings who want to work. We need people, shovels, firefighting gear and vehicles. Hold a paid training session or two. Put a real firefighter in charge of each squad of fire line cutters, and keep these semi-civilians employed at least 10 miles away from the fire. People need to be ready to go in a matter of hours when a fire starts up. Funny how there’s no shortage of workers these days.

    3. The best time to put out a fire is before the fire starts. We need properly maintained, wide fire lines. Herds of goats can eat all the vegetation off of a fire line. Goat cheese, anyone?

    4. If cutting fire lines isn’t ecological enough, then we need to deliberately set fires in the late fall, fires about 100 miles long and 200 feet wide, exactly on the day and hour when a huge winter storm will be moving in 45 minutes after the fire is set. Voila, no brush, less megafire danger, low ecological impact, lots of temp jobs.

    5. Maybe we need to manage forests as carbon sinks. Leave some old growth wilderness forests for the animals that depend on decayed wood, but haul out the accumulated carbon near roads.

    6. Finally we need to admit that climate change is here and it’s getting worse. Take the seeds of drought-resistant, predator-resistant, fire-resistant trees and shrubs. Give the seed to walkers and hunters, with a request to stamp the seed into the ground. As a region’s old species die, the hardier species grow up and resist fires. A somewhat managed move to a drier forest is better than a megafire.

  5. Gail Zawacki says:

    According to that article, small fires in the Gila HAVE been allowed to burn.

    “Starting in the early 1970s, the Gila has been leading the way when it comes to implementing such an active fire management strategy. Instead of immediately dousing flames in the wilderness, forest managers have let them burn as long as conditions are favorable. The question that the Whitewater-Baldy fire is expected to answer is whether that strategy will pay off with more natural, less intense fires.”

    Of course, drought from climate change is contributing to the increase in frequency and intensity of fires. However, they are increasing in places where there is no drought, simply because vegetation is dying from air pollution, everywhere. The foresters should start acknowledging what is pointed out in the Reuters article about Sequoia National Park linked to here:

    which says:

    “Ozone also is to blame for weakening many stands of the park’s Jeffrey and ponderosa pines, leaving telltale yellowing of their long needles. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, they soak up ozone through the stoma in their needles, which inhibits photosynthesis. Ozone also stresses young redwood seedlings, which already face challenges to survival.”

    “Although weakened trees are more susceptible to drought and pests, the long-term impact on the pines and on the giant redwoods that have been around for 3,000 years and more is unclear.”

    “I’t’s not a great story to tell, but it’s an important story to tell because you can look at us as being the proverbial canary in a coalmine,’ said Annie Esperanza, a park scientist who has studied air quality there for 30 years. “If this is happening in a national park that isn’t even close to an urban area, what do you think is happening in your backyard?'”


  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The whole bleedin’ planet is our backyard.

  7. ToddInNorway says:

    The only honest conclusion is that megafires are an unavoidable consequence of climate change. There is nothing we can do stop such fires transforming entire regions from forest to grassland or drifting dunes and desert. The effect on the short-term CO2 net atmospheric emissions will be catastrophic. The only hope to avoid this is to convert a significant fraction of the existing forest biomass to some other more stable form of carbon, or in the worst case, burn it and capture the CO2 for underground storage. I do not see this happening.

  8. Mark says:

    Here is another issue FEMA constantly goes in and tells firefighters responding to fire situations if you do not have a fire truck leave they do not want you. Fireman respond to fill in gaps and man power for relief and other duties the federal Government is like a elephant in a china shop defeating the real purpose over and over again and this goes for the forestry service too they do the same thing Only their friends. this is from a fire fighter

  9. Petronelle says:

    Thanks, Gail, for commenting here. You get to more people that way. Everybody: Go to Wit’s End!

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    At around 50 degrees C, the clouds of eucalyptus oil vapour that are present above the crowns of mountain ash forests in Victoria can spontaneously ignite. That’s how those fires can travel so very, very, rapidly. In 2009, on the day of the mega-fire disaster that killed nearly 200 people and countless other animals, the temperature reached 48 degrees.