On Monday, 900 firefighters fought to gain control over two fires burning forested areas east and west of Santa Fe, fueled by a historic drought and high winds.
On June 1, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured the above image, courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory. Smoke is visible and the red outlines show areas with abnormally warm surface temperatures, indicating a wildfire. A downed power line set an area ablaze north of Pecos on May 30, starting the Tres Laguna Fire. 140 homes have been evacuated, and by midday Monday, 12.5 miles of the Santa Fe National Forest had been consumed. One firefighter suffered a minor injury. If the fire spreads east, ash and runoff could endanger the city of Las Vegas’ watershed.
On the 31st, another fire raged through forests of ponderosa pine in Valles Caldera Preserve. The Thompson Ridge Fire near Jemez Springs has burned nearly 2,000 acres. The teams fighting both fires are hopeful that cooler weather Monday night will help contain the fires, which are in difficult-to-navigate terrain.
The Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles has consumed 25,000 acres as 2,000 firefighters tried to get the blaze under control on Monday. Nearly 3,000 people have been evacuated and 15 buildings have been destroyed. California has battled more than 2,000 wildfires this year — 90 percent more than an average year. Nathan Judy of the U.S. Forest Service said, “we’re seeing conditions that we normally see in late July, early August.”
Firefighters across the nation face these risks with a budget $115 million short of normal firefighting capacity because of the cuts mandated by the sequester.
It was a dry spring across the country, and as of last Thursday (the most recent update), U.S. Drought Monitor showed that 82 percent of New Mexico is experiencing “Severe” or “Exceptional” drought conditions.
Dan Ware, of the state’s forestry agency, said: “This is a historic drought. We haven’t seen a drought like this since the 1950s.” Drought and wildfires are a vicious cycle, as firefighters look for declining water supplies to put out fires.
Wildfires burned 9.2 million acres in 2012, and a recent report said that area was likely to double by 2050. Recent research has shown that climate change has brought, and will continue to bring, more extreme weather to the United States — which includes drought. Shifts in precipitation patterns, along with more likely extreme downpours, mean that places like New Mexico will see runoff instead of drought alleviation.
It’s not just New Mexico. 2012 was Nebraska’s hottest, driest year on record. Texas has faced historic drought since 2010, with no end in sight. A recent report showed that drought will affect water-scarce regions all across the country. Although some regions of the U.S. face flooding, this is exactly the problem: weather that whiplashes between drought and flood is harmful to property, agriculture, residents, and the climate.
The Texas legislature is preparing for increasing droughts by creating a “rainy day” fund, but they did so without mentioning climate change as the reason those droughts will increase.
Farmers in California are trying out the risky tactic of “dry farming.” As drought conditions worsen across the country, this may become regular practice instead of a seeming oxymoron.