Critical-to-extreme wildfire conditions are about to take hold of the southwestern United States and parts of Colorado, leading into what could be a lengthy, multiday and memorable outbreak of wildfires and/or wildfire conditions. Warm to locally scorching temperatures, bone-dry air and strong mountain gusts are set to overlap for several days, part of a summerlike weather pattern that comes without the chance of any meaningful rainfall.
The National Weather Service in Albuquerque is calling it a “dangerous, long duration and potentially historic critical fire weather event.” Tinderbox conditions conducive to the rapid spread of blazes are expected to persist well into next week. Sunday may present the most extreme combination of high winds and hot, dry air.
“New Mexico is facing 100 straight hours of the worst possible set of fire conditions, with high temperatures & extreme winds,” tweeted Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) on Friday. “It is critically important to abide by evacuation orders. Your life & safety is top priority.”
She added: “I ask every New Mexican to do everything you can to prevent any additional fire incident, anything that could cause a spark. No open flames, no campfires, no open grills, no welding, no tossing cigarette butts — please work with us to prevent fires and preserve resources.”
As it is, a number of ongoing fires will continue to burn and be made worse by this weekend’s weather. New ignitions are also anticipated, which could rapidly grow out of control.
Earlier this week, the Calf Canyon fire became New Mexico’s second-largest on record. In late April, it merged with the Hermit’s Peak fire just to the east, a prescribed burn that crews lost control of amid strong winds. The cause of the Calf Canyon blaze is under investigation.
Located in the higher terrain east of Santa Fe in Mora and San Miguel counties, the Calf Canyon fire has already torched 170,665 acres and is 21 percent contained. More than 1,400 personnel from three states are actively involved in combating the blaze, which has destroyed at least 276 structures and forced an estimated 4,000-plus evacuations.
Andy Lyon, public information officer with the Southwest Incident Management Team, told The Washington Post that 15,000 residences could be threatened over the weekend all the way around the perimeter of the fire.
The Calf Canyon fire is among six large blazes burning in New Mexico. The fires prompted President Biden to declare a major disaster for parts of the state Wednesday so that federal assistance can reach affected residents.
Red-flag warnings, for dangerous fire weather conditions, cover all of New Mexico, as well as west Texas, eastern and northern Arizona, southern Nevada, the Inland Empire and deserts of California and much of southern and eastern Colorado.
The Weather Service in Albuquerque is urging residents to be ready to evacuate, telling them to “remember [their] ps” — people, pets, prescriptions, pictures, papers, personal computer and phone.
“But if there’s not enough time, just grab your family and go,” it wrote.
In addition to fanning flames, the high winds are also projected to stir up areas of blowing dust, limiting visibility. And the dust and smoke will degrade air quality.
The turbulent weather pattern is the result of a large dip in the jet stream — the river of high altitude winds — in the western United States. This dip will remain entrenched through at least the middle of next week, directing a torrent of winds from the west and southwest over the Southwest and southern Rockies.
The most intense winds through the weekend will rush over the high terrain of Colorado, where gusts topping 70 mph are possible. Elsewhere, widespread 40-to-55 mph winds are likely in the mountains through Monday, slackening some each night but returning in full force during the daylight hours.
Meanwhile, low pressure will eject out of the Colorado Front Range on Sunday, tugging a shot of dry air eastward. That will reinforce a “dry line” in western Texas and Oklahoma. To the east, tropical humidity will reign, but desert air will overspread areas to the west.
The combination of abnormally high temperatures, soaring to 95 to 100 degrees in west Texas and eastern New Mexico, and “downsloping” air rushing down the Rockies will contribute to relative humidity percentages in the single digits. Computer models are suggesting the humidity could dip to just 4 percent in the Permian Basin of Texas.
That’s added atop a Level 4 out of 4 “exceptional” drought already in place, the bull’s eye of which is centered in eastern New Mexico and parts of the Texas Panhandle and Hill Country.
We cannot overstate it enough!!! The next several days will be windy & exceptionally dry with above normal temperatures & unstable conditions. This long duration critical fire weather event will require all New Mexicans to be diligent & cautious! #NMwx #NMfire #OneLessSpark pic.twitter.com/rhVxpVPlMt— NWS Albuquerque (@NWSAlbuquerque) May 6, 2022
Conditions may improve some as the upcoming week wears on, but a glance at the extended pattern shows little influx of moisture into the water-starved region. “More critical fire weather conditions are expected Tuesday through the rest of the week, although coverage will likely be less overall,” the Weather Service in Albuquerque wrote.
Blazes in New Mexico have burned over 270,000 acres so far this year, the second most in the past decade, and the fire season is just now entering its peak period. The unusually active season is tied to the persistence of strong winds, the drought and warmer-than-normal temperatures. Several of the blazes are burning in areas where winter snowpack was much below normal.
Across the United States, wildfire activity is running 78 percent above the 10-year average so far this year, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.
Research links rising temperatures and intensifying droughts from human-caused climate change to longer, more severe fire seasons. Hot, arid conditions dry out vegetation quickly, making the land surface more combustible. This year’s conditions may portend a fiery future for not only New Mexico but also much of the Southwest.