Opinion | New Mexico’s Megafires Mark a Turning Point for the People, the Land, and the Forest Service
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 April 6th 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
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% 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.
On the Rio Grande in New Mexico, Elephant Butte reservoir, the state’s largest, is down to 10% 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.
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
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.
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.
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 9th to 17th—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…
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.