Monday, June 27, 2011

Wildfires in New Mexico Destroy Valuable Forest Lands and Threaten Los Alamos...Again

The Las Conchas Fire began Sunday in the Jemez Mountains.  I saw the smoke plume that rose like a giant mushroom cloud while I was watching my daughter's softball game in Albuquerque in the late afternoon.  The temperature was near 100 degrees F. and the hot, dry winds were gusting at about 30-40 mph.  I looked at the rising thermal cloud thinking maybe rain was coming.  But, alas, it was a new wildfire by Valles Caldera in the Jemez Mountains and it is burning just 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos

Last night, from my back deck, I watched the horrible red flames burning along the extended ridgeline of the Jemez Mountains.  The flames leaped high into the sky as they greedily consumed the dry tender of the Santa Fe National Forest. Firefighters had already been fighting the Pacheco Fire southeast of Santa Fe for nine days.  It was a frightening sight and I felt sad for the disaster unfolding as people, animals, and the forest were threatened with their demise by fire.  I remembered that 11 years ago, I watched a similar event from Santa Fe where I had stopped for the night on my way back to my home in San Diego.  I had picked up my daughter, Amanda, from Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.  Her college room mate and fellow swim team mate, Libby, was with us. Libby was from Australia and the trip was to be a leisurely and scenic tour of the American Southwest.  Instead, we watched the frightening Bandelier Cerro Grande Fire with smoke covering the blue New Mexico skies. Refugees from the fire, primarily from Los Alamos, sought refuge in Santa Fe motels.  All the occupants of the Travelodge where we were seemed to have fled Los Alamos.  The Cerro Grande Fire is still fresh in the minds of those who live in Los Alamos which is the location of a major National Laboratory for nuclear energy development and weaponry.  You can see the Pajarito Mountain Ski Resort Webcam view of the current fire hereNews reports this morning say that the fire went from 5000 acres to more than 43,500 acres overnight and is zero contained!

Those of us in New Mexico have been closely watching the massive Arizona Wallow Fire which entered New Mexico last week and has been the source of smoke pollution throughout central and northern New Mexico since it began.  The Wallow Fire has burned more than 538,000 acres and is about 77% contained.  Now we face new threats and a potential disaster at Los Alamos where nuclear materials are stored. 

Having had no rain since May, the Sandia and Manzano Mountains are closed for the most part.  The Santa Fe National Forest began Stage III fire restrictions two days before the fire broke out.  Since we have not had any lightning storms, these fires have all been caused by humans, either accidentally or on purpose. We are facing the 4th of July holiday this weekend and with fireworks for sale legally throughout New Mexico, we all are on edge at the potential fires that can be started by stupid people using fireworks in our mountains.  I live in the mountains because I choose to.  It is a beautiful natural environment with birds and animals, dark nights to view the stars, a quiet and serene place with many junipers, pinon, and scrub oak trees. All it takes is one thoughtless or careless act to destroy this environment.

My home with gravel and few combustible plantings closest to my structures, has what is called "defensible space" 

Removing limbs 6-10 ft.from the bottom of trees deprives fire from ground-to-treetop ladder fuel, helping to slow the spread of fire 

Structures should have a minimum of 30 ft. of cleared space. Beyond my fence, the lot across the street has no defensible space at all and the house there is at extreme risk in the event of wildfire.

My backyard trees have been thinned and limbed

Last week, I worked hard to clear low limbs from trees, tall grasses and weeds, and "slash" (wood piles from tree trimmings) from my property.  This is a constant task. However, many of my fellow neighbors are too lazy or ignorant to clear their property of overgrown forest, brush, and dead trees.  Fire is a constant and natural occurance in the mountains.  It's not a question of "if", but "when" a fire will hit my neighborhood.  People who choose to live here must think about creating defensible space that slows the speed of fire and deprives it of fuel near structures. offers excellent information for homeowners to prepare their homes and land for wildfire. When a tragedy like the current massive Las Conchas fire occurs, public interest is high in how to prepare for a wildfire.  However, the time to prepare is not only now, but tomorrow, next week, and next year.  Preparing for the eventuality of wildfire is being responsible for making your over-grown lot more defensible.  We are in a long-term drought.  The overgrown forest is not only a fuel supply for wildfire, but it is not healthy.  Thinning trees will help the remaining trees get adequate water and sunlight resources that they struggle for in an overgrown forest. 
My neighbor to the left of my fence above has too many trees for half an acre, plus dead and fallen trees, weeds and brush that will feed a fire easily.

Update 4:30 PM Monday 6/27/11Los Alamos is now under mandatory evacuation orders.  Live updates on the Las Conchas Fire are here.  Rain is starting to fall in the area.  A house fire near my neighborhood (Frost Rd. and Gutierrez Canyon Rd.) began at noon today, rekindled at 2:30 and is still kicking up flames.  Very scary!  The clouds look promising for rain.  I hope we get some soon.

1 comment:

  1. We have experienced this in British Columbia too over the years. It is so terrifying for those living near it and it moves so quickly. Our friends have their plans set for leaving quickly and they know which pictures and papers they are bringing with them just in case.
    I hope they get lots of rain with no lightning strikes.