ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico is facing a potentially devastating wildfire season this year after experiencing record-setting fires during the last two years.
This season is shaping up to be one of the worst as a decade of drought drains moisture from forest fuels and average temperatures continue to rise, The Albuquerque Journal reported .
“We’ve had a pretty lackluster winter, but we don’t know what it’s going to be like this spring,” said New Mexico State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware. “We hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
Officials say several factors present a dire picture.
Seven of New Mexico’s 13 reservoirs contained less than a third of their average levels as of March 1, and two others barely made it to the midpoint.
Mountain snowpack was between one-fourth and three-fourths of average in all but the northwestern corner of the state at the beginning of March.
Fuel-moisture levels, which indicate how flammable the forest might be, have steadily decreased since the beginning of the year when they should have been increasing.
The U.S. Forest Service has warned that massive swaths of the northeastern, southwestern and southern parts of the state face “high” or “very high” wildfire risk this summer.
Drought conditions have persisted this year despite the absence of “La Niña” – a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that leaves hot, dry air over the Southwest – and scientists are scratching their heads about how to determine when this multiyear drought might end.
The grim predictions for this year come after almost 600,000 acres of state and private land were burned in fiscal year 2011, according to the State Forestry Division. More than a third of that acreage came after fire starts from equipment like faulty catalytic converters, vehicle emissions and blown tires.
In 2011, Las Conchas Fire near Los Alamos became the largest recorded fire in state history, charring more than 150,000 acres. The same year, the massive Wallow Fire became the largest fire in Arizona history, spilling over the state line into New Mexico.
Last year, the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso became the most destructive fire in recorded state history, destroying more than 250 buildings and causing more than $22 million in damages.