Southern Californians are currently experiencing a phenomenon they call June Gloom, when the humid, hazy air that usually hangs out just above the ocean blows inland and lingers, trapped by a warm layer above it. Oh, what the good people of New Mexico would have given in recent years for that brand of gloom. Instead, they've been visited by what might more aptly be described as June Doom, characterized by a feeling of dread that the right spark on the wrong day would set drought-ridden forests spectacularly aflame.
In May and June, the skies of Southwest are muddied not by supple fog but by throat-tickling smoke. These are the region's big fire months because they're typically dry and warm, conditions that are relieved by the monsoon rains of July and August, when the West's northern states begin to dry out, heat up and burn. They've been especially nerve-wracking in the last few years, with the drought that set the stage for the huge and damaging Wallow and Las Conchas fires in Arizona and New Mexico in 2011 stubbornly persisting.
This winter in New Mexico, it looked like May and June would once again be fearsome. Snowpack was pitiful, which ironically, cast the deluge of rain that fell on the state the previous September in a potentially troubling new light. The moisture had stimulated the growth of grasses and other small herbaceous plants, which without being matted down by deep snow, could provide widespread fine fuels for fire. "New Mexico fire managers are facing a grim and potentially extreme situation," the National Weather Service warned in February. "Without significant spring moisture, or timely late spring, early summer wetting events, the 2014 New Mexico fire season has the potential to be extremely destructive."
And yet, the June 1 forecast put the potential for significant fires in much of the state at no greater than normal. Halfway through the month, it looks like it will be a relatively unremarkable fire season.
"All the antecedent conditions were such that we looked like we were going to have a bad year," explains Chuck Maxwell, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center's Predictive Services Group. "But even with underlying severe drought, if you have cool temperatures, hits of moisture, cloud cover, lack of heat and general weather variability, you will not see huge fire outbreaks." And that's what's happened in New Mexico this spring and summer: The warm, dry periods – fire weather – have been punctuated by cool, wet periods. Without protracted fire-friendly weather, the opportunity to ignite blazes that burn big and long is significantly reduced.
That's not to say that the state won't have fires, or that fires won't blow up. The forecasts only consider the likelihood of ignition and initial spread. After that, it's a matter of fire behavior and local weather conditions – things you can't forecast on a seasonal basis. A human-caused fire on the Navajo Reservation in northwest New Mexico, for instance, grew quickly since last Friday thanks to dry, windy conditions and resisted suppression efforts. As of Wednesday morning, it was more than 13,000 acres in size and 0 percent contained. But even that fire isn't necessarily indicative of a bad fire year. "Getting a few large fires is normal," explains Maxwell. "There is a normal degree of fire activity that we’re aware of. We’re saying there shouldn’t be more than normal."
Much of Arizona, as well as southwestern New Mexico, however, are forecast to have higher than normal fire potential until the onset of the monsoon. In other words, there's less likelihood that the day-to-day weather will hold off big fires there as it has in much of the rest of New Mexico so far.
As for the rest of the region, here's a look at projected fire risk in the months ahead:
Cally Carswell is a contributing editor of High Country News. She writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and tweets @callycarswell.