RESERVE, N.M.—A massive wildfire in the New Mexico wilderness that already is the largest in state history spread in all directions Thursday, and experts say it's likely a preview of things to come as states across the West contend with a dangerous recipe of wind, low humidity and tinder-dry fuels.
erratic Gila National Forest blaze grew overnight to more than 190,000
acres, or nearly 300 square miles, as it raced across the area's steep,
ponderosa pine-covered hills and through its rugged canyons.
than 1,200 firefighters are at the massive blaze near the Arizona
border, which has destroyed 13 cabins and about a dozen outbuildings,
fire information officer Iris Estes said.
persistent drought, climate change and shifts in land use and
firefighting strategies mean other western states likely will see
similar giant fires this season.
"We've been in a long
drought cycle for the last 20 years, and conditions now are great for
these type of fires," said Steve Pyne, author of "Tending Fire. Coping
with America's Wildland Fires" and a life science professor at Arizona
State University. "Everything is in line."
Agencies in New
Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and other western states are bracing for the
worst. Many counties have established emergency telephone and email
notification systems to warn of wildfires, and most states have enlisted
crews from nearby states to be ready when the big ones come.
"It's highly likely that these fires are going to get so big that states are going to need
outside resources to fight them," said Jeremy Sullens, a wildland fire
analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center. According to the
National Weather Service, a dry climate is expected to prolong drought
conditions across the Great Basin and central Rockies during the fire
season. Large portions of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico
will remain under severe drought conditions.
transitioning from La Nina to El Nino so we have no guidance to what's
going to happen, like if we will get more rain or less rain," said Ed
Polasko, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
unclear what type of relief will come from monsoon season, which starts
in mid-July, since experts say it's difficult to predict what areas in
the West will benefit, Sullens said.
A lack of moisture means
fewer fuels to burn in some areas, but unburned vegetation elsewhere
could pose a problem since states received no sustained snow or rain
this winter and spring.
That's what happened in New Mexico's
Gila Wilderness, where a lack of snow failed to push down grass, which
worsened the fire danger, Sullens said.
Typically fires in
the area don't cross the middle fork of the Gila River, said Danny
Montoya, a member of the fire's incident command team.
year, it did get across," Montoya said. "We're getting humidity levels
during the day about 2 to 3 percent. Normally, during summer you'd see 5
to 12 percent."
The two-week-old Gila forest fire is the
largest wildfire burning in the country. Its size this week surpassed
New Mexico's last record fire, a blaze last year that charred 156,593
acres and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's
premier nuclear facility.
Officials on Thursday closed the
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument due to smoke generated from the
fire. The National Park Service said the closure would remain in effect
until conditions improve.
Montoya said he wouldn't be
surprise if smoke from the fire remained until monsoon season since the
fire is burning in rough areas and it's difficult for crews to fight it
Estes said the blaze is 5 percent contained.
continuing with burnout operations and we've been helped with a slight
rise in humidity and decreased winds," she said.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez was scheduled to fly over the fire Thursday to survey the damage.
reasons states in the West will see more massive fires this season is
because, coupled with drought and dry climate, crews have experienced
changes in firefighting strategies and agencies have changed some
policies in fighting wildfires in isolated areas, Pyne said.
the last 20 years or so, agencies have generally been reluctant to put
firefighters at risk in remote areas," Pyne said. "It wasn't like that
Instead, he said agencies have focused attention on burnout operations until conditions are safe to begin containment.
that those practices and the larges fires are bad things, Pyne said.
For example, he said the Gila Wilderness has been a target for
"So maybe," Pyne said, "this is how it's supposed to happen."