This article titled “New Mexico’s record-setting wildfires deepen trend of devastating ‘megafires'” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg in Glenwood, New Mexico, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 1st June 2012 15.42 UTC
The first Shane Wolfe saw of the wildfire now raging through the New Mexico wilderness was from a helicopter – just as the firefighter was to lower himself down a rope to fight the flames.
By the time Wolfe’s crew rappelled in, a vast swathe of desert grasses, juniper, ponderosa pine and spruce fir was reduced to a moonscape. “It was all ash and grey and no more vitality left. No more colour left,” he said.
The fire tearing through the canyons and peaks of up to 10,000ft, covered 216,000 acres, or 337 square miles, by Friday morning – an area considerably larger than New York City. There are signs that the outbreak, the biggest in the state’s history, will still be smouldering in some places until the summer rains arrive in mid-July. It is now, experts say, in the category of megafire.
Super-sized and highly destructive wildfires have become a regular occurrence in America, especially in the south-west, because of drought, climate change and human interference with the natural landscape.
Last year saw record-breaking fires in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The early start to this year’s fire season has sharpened fears of a sequel: with more acres and homes lost, and bigger budget crises for federal and state governments fighting the disasters.
“Our fire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer throughout the country,” said Tim Sexton, wildfire research director for the US forest service. “When I first started, a three-day fire or a four-day fire was a long fire and now a month-long fire is not that uncommon.”
Low-intensity wildfires are part of the natural landscape of the south-west but a study by fire scientists last month charted a disturbing new trend of large and devastating fires, consuming record areas of land and burning for weeks. By early Friday, the fire was just 10% contained, the forest service reported.
The fire now raging in south-western New Mexico started near the Whitewater creek inside the Gila national forest on 16 May and was ignited in an event that occurs regularly in nature: a lightning strike. In this instance, there were initially two separate lightning strikes some distance apart.
Wendy Peralta heard the rangers call in the fire over the police scanner in the window of the store she runs in the tiny village of Glenwood, about 10 miles from the fire. “I got a sick feeling in my stomach,” she said. “Every time we have a wilderness fire for me as a native it’s a sick feeling, a kind of dread.”
By 24 May, the two fires had merged, going on to consume 70,000 additional acres of land in a single day. Peralta, whose store and motel business depends on tourist visits to the forest, was looking at a third season in a row wrecked by wildfire.
She lost two-thirds of her business last year because of the Wallow fire in nearby Arizona, which set that state’s wildfire record, and bookings were already down by half for this summer. “It’s devastating,” she said.
Outside the village, the layer of dark smoke lining the horizon seemed as broad and substantial as an extra mountain range. Thick columns of smoke spewed into the air.
Inside the Gila wilderness area, the fire was turning tall pines into giant fiery torches, and shooting off new fires up to a mile away, firefighters said. “This is one of the worst I’ve seen and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. For a fire to run 70,000 acres in a day is something else,” said Marc Titus, who was in charge of helicopters dropping buckets of flame retardant on brush and grass close to the fire’s edge. “There will be smoke on this fire until it rains.”
Authorities warned of poor air quality as far north as Albuquerque, 170 miles away, and there were reports the smoke was visible from across the border in Mexico.
Meanwhile, at the fire command centre, which is a collection of trailers, trucks and mess tents on a rodeo ground outside the town of Reserve, authorities were trying to fight the fire on their own terms.
More than 1,200 crew, including elite teams with swaggering names – hot shots, smoke jumpers, and Wolfe’s heli-rappelers – were put to work at some distance from the main fire, hacking back and burning brush and grass to build a defensive line.
The idea was to corral the fire into an area of about 300,000 acres and remove any sources of fuel for the flames outside that thick black line on the firefighting maps.
Firefighters were only actively confronting the blaze to protect homes, like those in the former silver mining town of Mogollon. Otherwise, they were working to hold their line.
“We want to fight the fire on our own ground,” said Ricardo Zuniga, a fire information officer. “We want to choose the terrain.”
The strategy, in line with current firefighting protocol, had its critics, however. “I wish somebody had had the balls to ignore federal law and put out the fire in that wilderness when it was just two acres,” said Shelley Donovan, who lives in Glenwood.
Fighting the fire now, two weeks later, was hard work, across rugged terrain with few roads. Part of the forest is designated a wilderness area. Roads are banned.
The conditions in the forest, meanwhile, all favoured the fire.
New Mexico, like much of the south-west, has gone through several years of extreme drought, with diminishing snowpack in the mountains and poor summer rains.
The tall pines, brush, piñon, and grasses were so dry this week, fire officials warned each spark had a 100% probability of starting a new fire.
There was plenty to feed those flames.
The forest had seen nearly a dozen small-scale fires over the last several hundred years, according to the ecological record, said Matthew Rollins, the wildlands fire science director for the US geological survey.
But he said the forest had never experienced an all-consuming fire like the one burning now, with flames shooting up to the treetops.
Fire experts say such dense forests were critical in creating today’s megafires. A century of cattlle ranching and firefighting have led to taller, denser forests, with a ready supply of fallen trees and other material.
The cattle ate the grassy fields, and the earlier firefighting methods interrupted the natural cycle of small-scale fires that allowed forests to cleanse and regenerate.
“We are now in a situation where the forests are so overgrown, there are so many trees and brush, and so much fuel, that when you do get a natural ignition, like lightning, the fire does not behave in a normal way,” said Laura McCarthy, the New Mexico director of the Nature Conservancy.
There are also a lot more people living on the edge of the wilderness than there were decades ago, raising the risks of every wildfire. Even as the fire raged, government officials were out in Glenwood warning of the next disaster about to unfold: extreme floods.
When the rains do begin, the summer thunderstorms are expected to flush out the ash and burnt logs from the megafire into the Whitewater creek, depositing the charred debris on Glenwood.
Peralta is distraught at the prospect. First fire, later floods. “I just think it’s all out of control,” she said. “I think we need to start over. I don’t know how we do it, but we need to start over.
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