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Know the West

New Mexico on fire


New Mexico is burning. Again. In June 2011, winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour propelled an aspen into a power line in the Jemez Mountains, near Los Alamos, igniting a 156,593-acre blaze that became known as the Las Conchas Fire. It was the biggest wildfire in the New Mexico's recorded history, until the next year, when lighting struck the Gila National Forest in the southern part of the state, sparking the 297,845-acre Whitewater-Baldy Fire. Now, in its third year of drought, northern New Mexico is burning anew. Two fires started late last week, one in the Santa Fe National Forest east of Santa Fe, and another in the Jemez Mountains, quite near the Las Conchas burn scar. Both were kindled by trees falling on power lines.

Firefighters march into the Gila during the Whitewater-Baldy fire of 2012. Courtesy Gila National Forest.

Many people are probably bummed to see the forests of northern New Mexico, freshly battered by a blaze that was much bigger and hotter than fires past, get licked again, even though the current fires appear far less severe than Las Conchas. But no one should be surprised. Stocked with fuel from a century of fire suppression, and with soils, grasses and trees seasoned by the ongoing drought, these hills are the forested equivalent of Match Light charcoal. Add the low humidity and gusty weather of last week, and one could argue it would have been more surprising if a fire or two didn't ignite.

These twin blazes could be just the beginning of a much wilder wildfire season in New Mexico, which, along with Arizona and California, was named most likely to burn big by U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell earlier this spring, thanks to severe drought. But the drought is deeper in New Mexico than anywhere else in the West, and it's steadily worsened in recent months. At the end of April, just under 25 percent of the state was experiencing "exceptional drought," the worst category the U.S. Department of Agriculture has got. Now, about 45 percent of the state is "exceptionally" dried out, and the drought's effects don't stop at wildfires.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the toll that hot, dry year upon hot, dry year is taking on New Mexico's river basins. The visible impacts on the state have multiplied since. There are the fires. And there are the hundreds of emaciated cattle that were recently seized by the state Livestock Board from a ranch in southern New Mexico and moved to a feedlot; the owner of the ranch was charged with animal cruelty for letting 25 animals starve to death. Wildlife are also hungry. In Española, the Wildlife Center, a rehab facility, is reporting an uptick in the number of hungry and thirsty birds, bobcats, foxes and bunnies it's receiving.

"We are seeing an increase in birds that are coming in way underweight, without any injuries, which is unusual," the center's executive director Katherine Eagleson, told the Associated Press. "We are finding no evidence of disease or injuries, they are just starving." Of the drought, she added: "It’s probably worse than fires in terms of long-term effects on wildlife."

Dan Williams, a spokesman for New Mexico Game and Fish, expects it will be a tough year for bears, too. "Without water, there are less grasses and forbs that come out in the springtime that bears mostly subsist on until the acorns, nuts and berries come on later," he says. "Last year, we had a pretty good spring and early summer. There was plenty to eat up high. That resulted in a pretty good crop of cubs. This year, they're kind of in trouble. The grasses and forbs are simply not there. So they're having to come down to look for food elsewhere. It's likely to get worse later on."

It's a sad state of affairs. But Williams warns against letting emotion get the best of us. "People often overreact to things," he says, citing a woman who picked up a bear cub she thought was abandoned outside of Albuquerque recently. Game and Fish ended up with the bear, but Williams says chances are its mother was foraging nearby and would've been back to share her bounty with the cub. "People pick them up and basically steal them from their mother," he says, robbing the cub of vital survival skills it would have learned. "That bear cub will have a really hard time when they're released into the wild," he says. "It's going to have to fight for its own territory with other bears that will probably kill it. With the drought, we'll probably be seeing more of (these incidents)."

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor. She tweets @callycarswell.