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.
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.
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.
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.
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.