A “potentially historic” forest fire episode threatens the southwest
The Albuquerque National Weather Service calls it a “dangerous, long-lasting, and potentially historic fire weather event.” Powder keg conditions conducive to rapidly spreading fires are expected to persist into next week. Sunday can feature the most extreme combination of high winds and hot, dry air.
“New Mexico faces 100 straight hours of the worst possible fire conditions, with high temperatures and extreme winds,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) tweeted on Friday. “It is extremely important to respect the evacuation orders. Your life and safety are the top priority.
She added“I ask every New Mexican to do everything they can to avoid any further fires, anything that could cause a spark. No open flames, no campfires, no open grills, no welding, no cigarette butts – please work with us to prevent fires and conserve resources.
As it stands, a number of ongoing fires will continue to burn and will be made worse by the weather this weekend. New ignitions are also expected, which could quickly spiral out of control.
Earlier this week, the Calf Canyon fire became the second largest on record in New Mexico. In late April, it merged with the Hermit’s Peak Fire just to the east, a prescribed burn whose crews lost control amid high winds. The cause of the Calf Canyon fire is under investigation.
Located on high ground east of Santa Fe in Mora and San Miguel counties, the Calf Canyon fire has already burned 170,665 acres and is contained at 21%. More than 1,400 personnel from three states are actively involved in the fight against the fire, which has destroyed at least 276 structures and forced more than 4,000 evacuations.
Andy Lyon, public information manager with the Southwest Incident Management Team, told the Washington Post that 15,000 residences could be at risk over the weekend all around the perimeter of the fire. .
Large fires are raging in New Mexico and the worst may be yet to come
The Calf Canyon fire is among six large fires burning in New Mexico. The fires prompted President Biden to declare a major disaster for parts of the state on Wednesday so that federal assistance can reach affected residents.
Red flag warnings, for dangerous fire weather conditions, cover all of New Mexico, as well as western Texas, eastern and northern Arizona, southern Nevada, the Inland Empire and the deserts of California and much of southern and eastern Colorado.
The Albuquerque Weather Service is urging residents to be prepared to evacuate, telling them to “remember [their] ps” — people, pets, prescriptions, photos, papers, personal computer and phone.
“But if there’s not enough time, just take your family and go,” he wrote.
As well as fanning the flames, high winds are also expected to kick up areas of blowing dust, limiting visibility. And dust and smoke will degrade the air quality.
The turbulent weather pattern is the result of a sharp drop in the jet stream – the river of high altitude winds – in the western United States. This decline will remain entrenched until at least the middle of next week, directing a torrent of westerly and southwesterly winds over the southwest and south of the Rocky Mountains.
The weekend’s strongest winds will rush over the Colorado Highlands, where gusts exceeding 70 mph are possible. Elsewhere, widespread winds of 40 to 55 mph are likely in the mountains through Monday, slackening a little each night but coming back strong during the day.
Meanwhile, low pressure will eject from the Colorado Front Range on Sunday, pulling a dry blow to the east. This will reinforce a “dry line” in West Texas and Oklahoma. In the east, tropical humidity will prevail, but desert air will invade areas to the west.
The combination of abnormally high temperatures, reaching 95 to 100 degrees in western Texas and eastern New Mexico, and “downsloping” air rolling down the Rocky Mountains will contribute to relative humidity percentages at a figure. Computer models suggest humidity could drop to just 4% in the Texas Permian Basin.
This is on top of an “exceptional” Level 4 of 4 drought already in place, with its center of gravity centered in eastern New Mexico and parts of the Texas Panhandle and Hill Country.
We can’t exaggerate it enough!!! The next few days will be windy and unusually dry with above normal temperatures and unstable conditions. This long-lasting critical weather event will require all New Mexicans to be diligent and cautious! #NMwx #NMfire #OneLessSpark pic.twitter.com/rhVxpVPlMt
— NWS Albuquerque (@NWSAlbuquerque) May 6, 2022
Conditions may improve over the coming week, but a look at the extended pattern shows little influx of moisture into the water-hungry region. “More critical fire weather is expected Tuesday through the remainder of the week, although coverage is likely to be less overall,” the Albuquerque Weather Department wrote.
New Mexico fires have been burning 270,000 acres so far this year, the second highest in the past decade, and the fire season is now entering its peak. The exceptionally active season is linked to the persistence of strong winds, drought and above-normal temperatures. Several of the fires are burning in areas where winter snowfall was well below normal.
In the United States, wildfire activity is 78% above the 10-year average so far this year, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.
Research links rising temperatures to intensified droughts caused by human-induced climate change and longer and more severe fire seasons. Hot, arid conditions quickly dry out vegetation, making the land surface more combustible. Conditions this year may portend a fiery future not only for New Mexico, but for much of the Southwest as well.