New Mexico’s Megafires Mark Turning Point

Packing our “go” bags and securing our houses now seems to have been a useful dress rehearsal, writes William deBuys.

The Black Fire on May 16 in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. (Matthew.Kowal, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By William deBuys

Firefighters don’t normally allude to early English epics, but in a briefing on the massive Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico, a top field chief said, “It’s like Beowulf: it’s not the thing you fear, it is the mother of the thing you fear.”

He meant that the flames you face may be terrifying, but scarier yet are the conditions that spawned them, perhaps enabling new flames to erupt behind you with no escape possible. The lesson is a good one and can be taken further. If tinder-dry forests and high winds are the mother of the thing we fear, then climate change is the grandmother.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire blazed across 534 square miles of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost extension of the Rockies. Although the fire was the largest in New Mexico’s history, it had competition even as it burned. This spring, the Black Fire, a megafire of nearly equal size, devoured forests in the southern part of the state. The combined area of the two fires is roughly equal to that of Rhode Island, the American standard for landscape disasters on a colossal scale.

Records amassed by the Forest Service indicate that, at the fire’s peak, 27,562 people were evacuated from their homes. Four hundred and thirty-three of those homes were destroyed and more damaged, while an even greater number of barns, garages, sheds, and other outbuildings were also lost. The unquantified property damage, including destroyed power lines, water systems, and other infrastructure, will surely exceed the nearly billion dollars in damages arising from the Cerro Grande fire of 2000, which torched more than 200 residential structures in the city of Los Alamos. Meanwhile, the heartbreak resulting not just from destroyed homes but lost landscapes — arenas of work, play, and spiritual renewal, home in the broadest sense — is immeasurable.

The Hermits Peak fire began on April 6 with the escape of a prescribed fire ignited by the U.S. Forest Service in the mountains immediately west of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

A few days later and not far away, a second, “sleeper” fire, which the Forest Service had originally ignited in January to burn waste wood from a forest-thinning operation, sprang back to life. It had smoldered undetected through successive snowfalls and the coldest weather of the year. This was the Calf Canyon fire. Driven by unprecedented winds, the two fires soon merged into a single cauldron of flame, which stormed through settled valleys and wild forests alike, sometimes consuming 30,000 acres a day.

The blaze marks a turning point in the lives of all who experienced the fire. It also marks a transformative change in the ecological character of the region and in the turbulent history of the alternately inept and valiant federal agency that both started and fought it.

The Turning of a Climate Tide

Satellite photo on May 11, 2000, of the Los Alamos, Cerro Grande, forest fire. (NOAA)

Two and a half decades ago, a long-running wet spell came to an end in the Southwest. Reservoirs were full, rivers were meeting water needs, and skiers and irrigators alike gazed with satisfaction on deep mountain snowpacks. The region’s forests were stable, if overgrown.

Then came a dry winter and, on April 26, 1996, an unextinguished campfire in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains flared into a major conflagration that came to be known as the Dome Fire. I vividly remember the startling whiteness of its mushroom-shaped smoke plume surging into the sky, a sight all the more unnerving because the fire was burning within rifle shot of Los Alamos National Lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

It engulfed much of Bandelier National Monument and stunned observers in two ways. The first surprise was that it erupted so early in the year, before fire season should properly have begun. The second was that it grew to what was then considered immense size: 16,516 acres. How times have changed.

The outbreak of the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, weeks earlier than the Dome, shows yet again that fire season is much longer than it used to be. The size of the burned area speaks for itself. A day when the combined fire consumed only as much land as the Dome did in its entirety sometimes felt like a good day.

Meanwhile, the news on water here in the Southwest is hardly less worrisome. Arizona’s Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, was full in 2000. Today, it’s at 27 percent of capacity, as is its younger and slightly smaller sibling, Lake Powell, which is also on the Colorado River. Plummeting water levels jeopardize the capacity of both lakes to produce hydroelectricity, which bodes ill for the region’s electrical grid.

Lake Mead in Arizona in 2010. (Robert Andersson, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On the Rio Grande in New Mexico, Elephant Butte reservoir, the state’s largest, is down to 10 percent of capacity and New Mexico’s inability to meet its water delivery obligations to Texas reveals the absurdity of interstate water compacts based on outdated assumptions about streamflow.

Then came the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, both sparked by Forest Service land treatments intended, ironically enough, to reduce the risk of rampant wildfire. Both projects were executed in accordance with the existing management rulebook, but the rules are rooted in a past more stable than the bone-dry, wind-fickle, and imperious present.

[Related: Grim 2022 Drought Outlook for Western US]

Chief Forester Randy Moore, who ordered a review of all actions relating to the prescribed fire that exploded into the Hermits Peak disaster, captured the essence of his agency’s failure this way: “Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered… Fires are outpacing our models, and… we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions.”

To say that macro conditions have rendered the Forest Service’s procedures obsolete should not obscure the issue of human fallibility. The chief’s review uncovered a host of minor bungles (80 pages worth, in fact) that cumulatively unleashed the catastrophe. The bottom line: setting prescriptive fires is inherently dangerous, and the extremes of heat, dryness, and wind brought on by climate change leave only a razor-thin margin for error.

Being behind the curve of change this time around has been a replay of the agency’s formerly nearsighted view of fire itself. The Forest Service was born in fire. It was a young, struggling agency until the heroics of fighting the “Big Blowup” of 1910 in the northern Rockies established its identity in the national consciousness. PR campaigns exploiting the anti-fire icon of Smokey Bear helped complete its branding.

The agency’s fierce stance against fire in all forms crystallized its identity and mission, while also blinding it to important ecological realities. Many forest systems require periodic doses of “light fire” that burns along the ground consuming underbrush, seedlings, and saplings. In its absence, the forest becomes overcrowded, choked with fuel, and vulnerable to a potentially disastrous “crown fire” that storms through the treetops, killing the entire stand. The ponderosa and “mixed conifer” forests that dominated a large part of the area consumed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire were overstocked in exactly that way. The Forest Service rightly deserves criticism for more than a century of all-out fire suppression, which led to unnaturally dense, fuel-heavy forests.

But that’s just one part of the story. Climate change is writing the rest.

The Fire Service

Supervisor checks helicopter and crew assignments during U.S. Forest Service’s national helicopter rappel training at Salmon Air Base in Idaho, May 2014. (USDA)

The Southwest is now in the midst of its second-worst drought in the last 1,200 years. Less publicized is the news that, were it not for greenhouse-gas pollution, the current dry spell would be rather ordinary. Nor is the forecast encouraging: given the warming of the regional climate, by perhaps 2050, coniferous forests in the Southwest — the majestic stands of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Englemann spruce, and subalpine fir that clothe the region’s blue mountains — will be, if not extinct, then rare indeed.

Fire, insects, drought, and outright heat, all driven by rising temperatures, will deliver a flurry of blows to doom the forests. However, it is (if, under the circumstances, I can even use the term) cold comfort to realize that, along the way, the ecological impact of the Forest Service’s misconceived ideology of all-out fire suppression will be — and already is being — erased by the implacable dynamics of a changing climate.

Having recognized its error on fire and having also been weaned by endless litigation from its post-World War II subservience to the timber industry, the Forest Service has attempted to recast itself as the nation’s premier steward of our wild lands. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, unleashed by the Forest Service itself, appears to have brought that process of reinvention to an inglorious conclusion.

But all is not lost, for the Forest Service is actually two agencies, and only one of them has failed. The portion of the Forest Service committed to day-to-day custodianship of the national forest system may be underfunded, uninspired, and (despite many outstanding individuals in its workforce) poorly led, but its fire-fighting sibling is thriving. Some people call this portion of the agency the Fire Service.

Silver City Hotshots conduct operations along Hwy 518 west of Holman during night shift for the Calf Canyon Fire on May 16. (Santa Fe National Forest)

In an era of global warming, fire-fighting is a growth industry and the Fire Service has managed to outfit itself accordingly. It sports the organizational coherence and high morale of a crack military outfit, while possessing equipment and funding to match its mission. Its infantry consists of fire crews recruited across the West that rotate in and out of action like combat troops.

The “armor” of the Fire Service consists of bulldozers, pumper trucks, masticators (that grind trees to pulp), feller-bunchers (that cut and stack trees), and other heavy equipment that clear fire lines scores of miles long. For air support, it commands not just spotter planes, slurry bombers (which douse fires with retardant), and bucket-wielding helicopters, but drones and state-of-the-art “Super Scoopers” that can skim the surface of a lake to fill their capacious cargo tanks with thousands of gallons of water. Then they head for the burning edge of the fire and, assisted by infrared guidance systems, drop their loads where the heat is fiercest.

A “Super Scooper” drops water along NM Highway 283 on May 16. (USDA Forest Service)

Like any modern military unit, the Fire Service also uses satellite imagery, advanced communications and specialists in logistics and intelligence (who predict fire behavior). Against the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, it deployed more than 3,000 personnel around a 648-mile fire periphery. For a time, the nation’s entire fleet of eight Super Scoopers was based at the Santa Fe airport.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman

The trouble with low-altitude air support is that bad weather can keep planes, choppers and even drones on the ground. In fire-fighting parlance, it’s a “red-flag day” when the weather service issues a red-flag warning (RFW) signaling that winds are strong enough to produce explosive fire behavior. Such a warning also leaves the Fire Service’s air fleet grounded.

In April and May, in the area of our recent fires, more than half the days — 32, to be exact — warranted red flags, a record since such warnings were first counted in 2006. That included nine straight days of RFWs — April 9 to 17 — when the fire-fighting air force was largely grounded and the flames raged.

I remember those blustery days. I live in a village on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The fire was on the east side. Most afternoons, I climbed a ridge to watch its immense smoke plumes boil into the sky. A fire volatilizes the water in the trees and other vegetation it combusts, dry though they may be. The vapor ascends the smoke column, crystallizing to ice as it reaches the frosty altitudes where jetliners fly. There, it condenses into blinding white cottony clouds that dwarf the mountains below them. A terrible sight to behold, those pyrocumulus clouds embody the energy released when our oxygen planet flaunts its power.

Wind may be the most neglected subject in the science of climate change. Nevertheless, it appears that the strength and distribution of wind phenomena may be changing. For example, derechos — massive, dust-filled weather fronts of violent wind — are now materializing in places where they were once little known. In their vehemence and duration, the gales that drove the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire seem to have been no less unusual.

Making People Whole

In multiethnic New Mexico, history and culture color every calamity. The vast majority of the people evacuated from the path of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire were Hispanic, most of them descendants of families that settled the region prior to its conquest by the United States in the war against Mexico of 1846 to 1848.

The Forest Service arrived relatively late on the scene as the colonizing arm of an Anglo-Protestant government centered 2,000 miles away. It assumed control of mountain expanses that had previously functioned as a de facto commons vital to local farmers and ranchers. Some of the commons were de jure as well, consisting of Spanish and Mexican land grants that were spirited away from their rightful heirs by unscrupulous land speculators, most of them Anglo.

The Forest Service may not have wrenched those lands from the people who owned them, but because many such lands were later incorporated into national forests, the agency inherited the animosity that such dispossession engendered. Restrictions the Forest Service subsequently imposed on grazing, logging, and other uses of the land only added to those bad feelings.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon catastrophe has understandably rekindled old resentments. Many of those who lost their homes or other property lacked insurance. (A typical house had been in the family for generations, was never mortgaged, and relied on wood stoves for heat.) Compensation, if it materializes, will have to come from Congress or, failing that, a class-action lawsuit which would grind on for years.

So far, the federal government has provided funding for emergency supplies, shelters, and public safety, but nothing to reimburse individuals for lost property. The four Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation — a fifth member is Republican — have jointly introduced legislation to help the fire’s victims, but its prospects are, at best, unclear and expectations are low since, to state the obvious, the willingness of the Senate to conduct the people’s business is ever more in doubt.

Given that this country has so far done little to protect its citizens from the dangers of climate change, the damage and suffering in northern New Mexico will now show whether it is willing to take the next step and care for the victims of that growing nightmare.

If the Thunder Don’t Getcha

Flooding in Flagstaff, Arizona, August 2021. (Coconino County Public Works)

We prayed for rain to stop the fire and ease the record-breaking dryness. When the rain finally came, it filled us with dread as much as gratitude. Severe burns produce “hydrophobic” soils, which absorb a downpour no better than a parking lot. The resulting floods can be orders of magnitude greater than normal runoff. In addition, sometimes the detritus of the fire — downed trees, mud, ash, and unmoored boulders — mixes into a “debris flow,” a sort of gooey, fast-moving landslide.

Thousands of people living below the fire’s charred slopes now worry for their safety. Already, following a recent cloudburst, the village of Rociada (which means “dew-laden”) was inundated by a flow of hail and ash two feet deep. Like their neighbors throughout the burned area, its residents are likely to be living behind sandbags for years. Many others beyond the fire’s periphery, including the 13,000 residents of Las Vegas, New Mexico, depend on water drawn from valleys now choked with ash. The taste of the fire, both literally and metaphorically, will be with us indefinitely.

And thanks to climate change, there will be plenty more fire. Our dawning new age, shaped by human-wrought conditions, has been called the Anthropocene, but historian Steve Pyne offers yet another name: the Pyrocene, the epoch of fire. This year, it was New Mexico’s turn to burn. Last year, an entire Greek island combusted, along with swaths of Italy, Turkey and large chunks of the Pacific Northwest and California. Fires in Siberia, meanwhile, consumed more forest than all the other areas combined. When it comes to ever more powerful fires, we New Mexicans are hardly alone.

On my side of the mountains, the county sheriff ordered us to prepare to evacuate. Fortunately, the flames halted a few miles away. We never had to leave. But packing our “go” bags and securing our houses now seems to have been a useful dress rehearsal. The drought and winds will be back. A bolt of lightning, a fool with a cigarette, a downed power line, or… goodness knows… the ham-fisted Forest Service will eventually provide the necessary spark, and then our oxygen planet, warmer and drier than ever, will strut its stuff again.

My neighbors and I know that this time we were lucky. We also know our luck can’t last forever. We may have dodged a bullet, but climate change has unlimited ammo.

William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of 10 books, including A Great Aridnessand The Last Unicorn, which compose a trilogy that culminates with The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss, just published.

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The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

10 comments for “New Mexico’s Megafires Mark Turning Point

  1. Danny Miskinis
    July 25, 2022 at 15:19

    The problem most overlooked by those who say the planet would be fine without us, is the 450 nuclear power plants which require constant monitoring by well trained staff, with the additional requirement of a reasonably civilized society. It seems, in our incredible cruelty, we have successfully booby trapped the entire planet. Perhaps that is why some of the wealthy seem so intent to leave and enjoy the view from Mars.

  2. Jeano
    July 25, 2022 at 12:27

    The NFS—that both started and fought it. Great line. But it appears they are better at staring them than fighting them. The destruction these fire have wrought upon the land by these few “mistakes” is staggering.

  3. Bob Browning
    July 25, 2022 at 11:07

    So we’ve ‘always’ had negligence ( and incidentally here another Forest Service booboo ). Yeah we’re contaminating air, water, our bodies, etc. by unchecked corporate greed… so, let’s write 47 paragraphs dramatizing the “urgent” need for a greenish new deal to further enrich the same corporate greedsters.?

  4. GBC
    July 25, 2022 at 10:41

    Excellent piece–superbly informative and well-written. Thank you. And thanks to TomDispatch and to CN for reposting.

  5. Judge Holden
    July 24, 2022 at 20:33

    Very good article, the relationship between fire and NFS has been clear for 75 years, but a Beauracracy is like old Titanic, don’t turn very fast. Thinking of Grendel and Grendel’s dam, Beowulf fit a whuppin’ on Grendel and never hesitated a moment in seeking out and easily destroying the monster’s mama. We should have such heroes now.

  6. Robert Emmett
    July 24, 2022 at 10:39

    What astounds me is what appears right before our all-knowing, all-connected-at-all-times selves as a kind of double whammy to pop your eyes open goes seemingly, largely unnoticed.

    What? Massive, long-lasting fires that not only endanger humans & destroy habitation as species disappear at extinction rates but throw more of the same gases that already are galloping out of control into the air while at the same time diminishing capacity to continue to produce oxygen (on human life scale)? What’s it got to do with me? Blah blah blah, doesn’t involve me.

    It appears like on a drawing board yet people don’t see or read or notice or care. Instead, those in charge of the money say let’s not do too much to help while we give it our best shot to make it worse. Not for us, mind you (we live like kings) but for all progeny of this planet.

    Or maybe we’re just waiting for the right moment because we like a good, dramatic come-back story, is that it?

    It may seem trite but true nevertheless: Nature bats last. And for a really, really long time ‘cause she can hit anything puny humans care to pitch and knock it out of the park. And there ain’t no crying or calling it off because of rain nor any mercy outs neither.

  7. DMCP
    July 24, 2022 at 04:46

    High-quality journalism. And thanks for the lyric reference; indeed, the wheel is turning and it won’t slow down.

  8. Em
    July 23, 2022 at 18:38

    Relying on the historical memories of the mind of man – which go back but two-hundred thousand years or so in the time-span of the existence of the Earth – for determining when natures seasons “should properly have begun” and what their duration should or should not be, is a result of the folly of man’s self-inculcated excessive pride and self-confidence.

    Because man’s meteorological records, accurate as they may be scientifically, which date back a mere couple of hundred years saying that “fire season is much longer than it used to be” in a specified area tells us of the full extent of climate change going on naturally for billions of years, is absurd!

    There is no doubt, in the advanced scientific mind of man that climate change is happening, as we talk about it, and that the catastrophe of complete climate collapse awaits humanity, just a couple of years down the road, but it tells us nothing about the planet’s natural endurance capacity; without humans on it, in the infinite Cosmos. There will be no mo(u)rning!

    For billions of years, prior to the arrival of the ‘human’ species, the planet not only survived, it evolved continuously, as an integral aspect of the expansion of the infinite; humankind being but only one of the minutiae of billions of species, which derived therefrom, are product of this evolution.

    Did humankind, the one thinking species, evolve with an ineradicable innate death instinct?
    Does evolution necessarily entail transformative processes, in extant beings?

    A profound, though highly unsettling example is the already existing, though fundamentally flawed political process, in America! In order for it to be truly transformative it has to completely evolve, systemically. This will take humankind to change itself from within; from what it already is, into the actual projection of what it dreams of being – exceptional.

    To this point in the transformative process, with the leadership role the U.S. has unilaterally designated to itself, it is becoming more obvious, with each passing day that the insane behaviors of U.S. society overall is the foremost example of just how persistent is the unconscious death wish – Thanatos (In Greek mythology, the personification of death).

    Climate change! What climate change? Climate catastrophe? It doesn’t concern me, I’m of the exceptional species!

    • Valerie
      July 24, 2022 at 12:29

      “but it tells us nothing about the planet’s natural endurance capacity; without humans on it, in the infinite Cosmos. There will be no mo(u)rning!”

      I agree with all you said but would like to direct you to a book by Alan Weisman: “The World without us”. We tend to forget all the installations which need human attention/expertise in their running. Granted, the book depicts what would happen if we all, at the same time, disappeared.

  9. mgr
    July 23, 2022 at 16:34

    And all the tons of carbon that had been removed from the atmosphere and stored by these living trees was released back into the atmosphere as they burned where it will now drive global warming further and faster. Global warming and climate change are dynamic processes, always changing always in motion and all the motions are now headed toward more warming with little or no further help from humanity required. Global forest fires illustrate just one of the negative (for us) global feedback loop tipping points that we are rapidly approaching.

    If “America is back” ever meant anything of value, this is truly the deciding moment. America’s place in the history the world will never move beyond what it does right now. This is especially true in regards to global warming which has become our global infrastructure for the future. This is the immediate crime against humanity’s future in the fomenting of Cold War 2 by Washington policy makers. No less, dictated by a failed neocon (hxxps:// Or/and, for an election.? Even lesser. The banality of evil…

    If people do not force the change from the street up, there is little hope that it will come. Both parties have now had their turn at it and have not even bothered. There is no “lesser of two evils,” both are the worst possible choice. The “DP” with HRC’s legacy at its heart is just better at starting real wars.

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