Associated Press file photo
Associated Press file photo
ALBUQUERQUE – Two massive wildfires raced across tinder dry forests in southern New Mexico in 2012, setting records for the largest and most destructive fires in the state’s recorded history.
In Colorado, the worst wildfire season in a decade has yet to be fully extinguished. Densely forested pockets within Rocky Mountain National Park continued to smolder just days before the new year.
“We’re used to seeing fires in August and September, but definitely not late December,” said Richard Gilliland, who works at the park. “It’s been a very, very dry fall and the summer was pretty dry too and that is what led to that fire and made it so difficult to get out.”
Burning since October in an area of the park that hadn’t seen flames in centuries, the Fern Lake Fire is indicative of the kind of wildfire season that was experienced across the West this year. Officials described it as severe, active and challenging. In all, more than a dozen lives were lost, an estimated 2,700 homes were destroyed and resources were stretched thin at times as the nation saw more than 9.2 million acres go up in flames.
Rather than being an anomaly, the National Interagency Fire Center said this year was more consistent with the kind of fire seasons seen during the last decade.
“Since 2002, with only a couple of exceptions, fire seasons have tended to be more active, with larger acreages burned and more severe conditions than any other decade since accurate records were first kept in 1960,” fire center spokesman Randy Eardley explained in a review.
The 8 million-acre mark has been surpassed six times during the last decade. Between 1992 and 2001, there was only one year in which more than 7 million acres burned.
Experts say the measure of burned acreage mostly reflects long-term conditions and trends on the landscape.
Statistics from the national fire center show Colorado, California, Idaho and several other Western states saw more land burned this year than in 2011. The good news: Substantially fewer acres burned in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas than the previous year despite continued dry weather and above-normal temperatures. All three states had record-setting seasons the year before.
Officials with the New Mexico State Forestry Division classified the year as mild by comparison. They attribute some of that to the lessons learned in 2011.
On state and private land in New Mexico, fewer than 460 fires burned 40 square miles in 2012. A year ago, 1,125 fires blackened more than 1,030 square miles and nearly two-thirds of those fires were caused by people.
“All that said, our overall fire danger remained very high throughout the year,” said forestry spokesman Dan Ware. “The big factors in the lack of acres burned were heightened public awareness and the fact that because of a lack of good moisture, there wasn’t much grass or brush to burn on the east side of the state.”
If the dry trend continues over parts of the central U.S. and into Colorado and New Mexico, forecasters at the National Interagency Fire Center said there’s a possibility of seeing an early start to the next fire season. The other concern is that snowpack in some of the region’s mountain ranges is far below normal.