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‘Dire’ fire conditions persist in Southwest, as blazes grow

The National Weather Service is highlighting an ‘extremely critical’ fire weather risk for parts of New Mexico and Colorado

A sunset is seen through plumes of wildfire smoke in Las Vegas, N.M., on Saturday. (Cedar Attanasio/AP)
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Serious fire weather covered the southern Plains and Desert Southwest on Monday, continuing a multiday stretch of bone-dry and windy conditions that will last into the midweek. Forecasters at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque are describing the situation as “dangerous and dire” as existing large fires expand and conditions are ripe for any new ignitions to erupt.

The Weather Service’s Prediction Center is calling it a “volatile combination of windy and dry conditions” that could foster “extreme [fire] behavior” and “promote rapid [fire] spread.” It designated a top-tier “extremely critical” wildfire risk for northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado on Monday.

This most serious danger zone includes Las Vegas, N.M., and Pueblo, Colo. Surrounding that is a much broader “critical” risk across the remainder of New Mexico, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas and adjacent northern Arizona.

Winds fuel New Mexico wildfire, complicating containment efforts

It comes as numerous large fires are already burning in the Southwest, including New Mexico’s Calf Canyon Fire northeast of Santa Fe. It’s already torched 189,767 acres as the state’s second-largest fire on record, and is 43 percent contained. The blaze, the cause of which is under investigation, ignited April 19 before merging with the Hermit’s Peak Fire to the east, a prescribed burn that fire crews lost control of amid strong winds.

The Calf Canyon made a run to the east-northeast Sunday evening, prompting new mandatory evacuations in parts of San Miguel and Mora counties, adding to nearly 13,000 people who had already fled the blaze.

Nearly 1,700 personnel were actively involved in combating the fire as of Monday morning. InciWeb, a wildfire information clearinghouse, reports the fire is devouring “a significant amount of dead and downed fuels in the understory.” They blame severe drought exacerbated by strong winds and high temperatures, which has also delayed the green-up of vegetation and allowed for an earlier start to fire season. Much lower than normal snowpack during winter contributed to the drought.

By Monday evening, red flag warnings for dangerous fire conditions will have persisted for 59 hours in the area, a “rare multiday event” according to NM Fire Info, an interagency website providing updates on the fires in the state.

Another large blaze in New Mexico, the Cerro Pelado Fire, to the west of Santa Fe, has burned more than 40,000 acres and is just 11 percent contained. Residents of Los Alamos County, known for the Los Alamos National Laboratory where the first atomic bomb was developed, have been told to be ready to evacuate if the blaze expands.

Fire season roared in with a vengeance in early April, weeks earlier than usual. It ordinarily ramps up in May and peaks in June before the sudden arrival of monsoonal moisture. Forecasters are becoming increasingly concerned.

“This is not that typical for this early in the season,” saidChuck Jones, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “In fact, it’s potentially record-breaking in terms of the number of critical fire weather days we’ve seen in April and May.”

Setting the stage for the fire weather event are antecedent dry conditions thanks to historic drought conditions gripping the area. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a quarter of New Mexico is engulfed by a Level 4 out of 4 “exceptional” drought. That’s beyond severe drought, and connotes the point at which the Rio Grande begins to dry up.

“No surface water is left for agriculture, [and] farmers use private wells,” the U.S. Drought Monitor states. “Bears encroach on developed areas; migratory birds change patterns.”

And that’s just the background heading into an upcoming fire event. The weather will be equally disconcerting, with anomalously hot, dry weather building in on the heels of strong gusty winds.

“We haven’t had that many systems coming along,” Jones explained in a phone interview. “We’re looking at dry air that’s moved over the area. It’s pretty much stayed like that for a while.”

Texas toast: Heat crushed records Saturday and will swell northward

Equally problematic is the current jet stream pattern, which has favored sprawling storm systems repeatedly moving north of the Four Corners. Subsequently, there haven’t been any widespread rain events. Instead, New Mexico and the Southwest just get the westerly winds on the backside of each counterclockwise-swirling system, each round of which introduces a renewed insurgence of stale desert air.

As that air descends down the Rockies into lower elevations, it undergoes “adiabatic compression,” a physical process that results in additional warming and drying — further desiccating the landscape.

“When we’re talking historic events, that’s what we mean,” Jones said. His office has issued red flag warnings a staggering 28 times since April 1.

A “dryline,” or the leading edge of arid desert air, was located Monday in Central Texas and western Oklahoma, with westerly winds behind it sapping the ground of any moisture. In New Mexico and Texas Hill Country, relative humidity percentages could dip to as low as 4 percent.

At the same time, sustained winds will blow between 20 and 30 mph out of the west-southwest, which will cause any spark to rapidly spread. Gusts could top 75 mph in the higher elevations. High wind warnings are in effect for many mountaintops across the Southwest.

Denver was included in a red flag warning, with meteorologists urging residents to “avoid burning or any outdoor activity that may produce a spark and start a wildfire.” It was just over five months ago that Louisville and Superior, two Boulder County towns on the northwest side of Denver, were scorched by the most destructive wildfire in the Centennial State’s history.

Over the next several days, winds may slacken some but dry, gusty conditions are predicted to persist. Winds will abate some each night before roaring back to life each afternoon. The breeze will gradually turn more out of the southwest Tuesday and south-southwest Wednesday.

All told, the outlook isn’t good for the beleaguered region.


A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Chuck Jones of the National Weather Service in Albuquerque as Tuck Jones. This article has been corrected.