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Early Wildfire Season in New Mexico Starts as U.S. Considers New Funding Sources to Fight Extreme Wildfires

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I experienced very dry conditions in the mountains of northern New Mexico a few weeks back. I spoke with someone who travels to Taos nearly every winter and this was the least snow he could remember. The fire risk sign said “low” in the surrounding forests, but if more snow did not come soon I suspected those signs would start nudging to the yellow and red colors that warn of fire risk. Unfortunately, fires have already erupted in New Mexico this February. Some officials say that if 2014 continues to be the sixth year in a row with drier-than-average conditions on New Mexico’s Rio Grande, this would be the longest dry stretch since before the Rio Grande river gauges existed.

During the largest wildfire season between 2003 and 2013 in terms of total New Mexico acres burned, the Las Conchas Fire erupted.   Photo taken June 29, 2011by Brenda Ekwurzel.

During the largest wildfire season between 2003 and 2013 (in terms of total New Mexico acres burned), the Las Conchas Fire erupted. Photo taken June 29, 2011, by Brenda Ekwurzel.

Yesterday, President Obama met with governors of western states to discuss drought and wildfires. His annual budget request to Congress includes a proposed shift in funding for extreme wildfires.

Just as FEMA is allowed to exceed its annual budget to deal with disasters by drawing down a special account, the Departments of Interior and Agriculture could have a similar exception and draw on a special account to fight extreme wildfires. These departments have spent more money fighting fires as development increases in wildfire-prone areas and warmer temperatures increase western U.S. wildfire risk. With each passing decade, wildfire season is getting longer, and more large fires and increased burned acreage have been the trend in the west.

BandelierNM_SandBagsVisitorCtr_2014Feb27_BrendaEkwurzel

Bandelier National Monument visitor center protects itself from post-fire flooding with sand bags. Photo taken Jan 27, 2014 by Brenda Ekwurzel

The 2011 year stands out for New Mexico and Arizona as the largest wildfire season in terms of acres burned between 2002 and 2013, according to the February 2014 report of the National Interagency Fire Center. I remember the thick smoke and ash falling during the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire near Los Alamos National Lab and Bandelier National Monument.

A few weeks back I had the chance to visit Ancestral Pueblo structures in Bandelier National Monument to see how it had recovered from the fire. I found the National Park Service visitor center with sand bags piled high and the road to the picnic area completely destroyed by flooding, a common post-wildfire risk, particularly in a state like New Mexico that typically has seasonal Southwestern Monsoon rains.

BandelierNM_FloodDamageRoadSign_2014Feb27_BrendaEkwurzel

Road sign damaged by floodwaters. Photo taken Jan 27, 2014 by Brenda Ekwurzel

Huge trees were piled up against other trees in the Frijoles Canyon and grey sediment choked the streambed in many parts.

I met residents who live downstream at Laguna Pueblo who said they heard the roar of boulders under the floodwaters hurling down the canyon in September 2013. The area affected by the flood looked perilously close to the village of Tyuonyi Pueblo on the valley floor of Frijoles Canyon– a cherished national heritage site that the National Park Service is charged with protecting.

Frijoles Canyon filled with trees, boulders, and grey sediment after flooding. Note how close the flood debris is to the Tyuonyi Pueblo structures. Photo taken Jan 27, 2014 by Brenda Ekwurzel.

Frijoles Canyon filled with trees, boulders, and grey sediment after flooding. Note how close the flood debris is to the Tyuonyi Pueblo structures. Photo taken Jan 27, 2014 by Brenda Ekwurzel.

Not only does the nation face the rising costs of fighting wildfires when they burn, the costs of extreme flooding in the months and years following such a large fire is often a surprise to those living downstream.

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: , , , ,

About the author: Brenda Ekwurzel is a senior climate scientist and assistant director of climate research and analysis at UCS. She has expertise on many aspects of climate variability including Arctic Ocean and sea ice, wildfires, groundwater, and coastal erosion. She holds a Ph.D. in isotope geochemistry from Columbia University (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory). See Brenda's full bio.

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  • http://mountainworlds.net Don Burrows

    Is not just Arizona and New Mexico. Colorado suffered devastating fires in 2002, 2012 and 2013. With the summer of 2013 having several flash flooding events. The September 2013 rain event was experienced along the entire length of the eastern slope of the Rockies. Luckily things aren’t as dry this winter, but what happens this spring is of utmost importance.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/brenda-ekwurzel.html Brenda Ekwurzel

      Don, Thank you for your comment about notable Colorado years with unfortunate devastating extreme events. The conditions for this spring are indeed critical. One clue we have is the conditions from Denver and north are not yet a concern, however, the U.S. drought monitor for the western region on Feb 18, 2014 depicts severe drought conditions in the southeastern part of Colorado (http://bit.ly/1hV9KY8).

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