Apr 25, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Wildfires ravage several states in "dangerously early" fire season

The scene from Rio Rancho, N.M., look toward a fire in Santa Fe National Forest in northern New Mexico.

The scene from Rio Rancho, N.M., looking toward a wildfire in the Santa Fe National Forest. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

New Mexico's governor signed an emergency declaration for 33 drought-affected counties over the weekend, as dozens of wildfires raged across several U.S. states in the Southwest and Midwest.

The big picture: The blazes have razed tens of thousands of acres and scores of structures over the past week and triggered evacuations over the weekend of some 4,000 homes in New Mexico and Nebraska — where the death of a retired fire chief was confirmed Sunday.

Why it matters: The wildfires have raised concerns that this fire season could be particularly devastating due to decades of drought and widespread dry vegetation, exacerbated by climate change, scientists warn.

  • New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham noted during a briefing Saturday that the state's wildfire season usually begins in late May or June, but now "half the state" had a fire issue. "Our risk season is incredibly and dangerously early," she added.
  • Several other states, including California and Colorado, have also seen an "early and active season," per the New York Times.

What's happening: Some 20 wildfires were burning in New Mexico overnight — including the state's largest fire that was formed when two blazes merged east of Santa Fe, triggering evacuations in Mora and San Miguel counties. It had swollen to 84 square miles and was 12% contained Sunday, AP reports.

  • 14 of the past 15 days have had a Red Flag Warning for some or all of northern and central New Mexico, the National Weather Service notes. An air quality alert was issued for both regions through noon Monday.

In Arizona, Coconino County was still under a state of emergency declared by Gov. Doug Ducey last Thursday due to the Tunnel Fire, northeast of Flagstaff, though evacuation orders had been lifted for some residents Sunday.

  • "Sadly, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument has burned in its entirety," the park said in an online post.

Meanwhile, authorities in Nebraska confirmed Sunday that a retired Cambridge fire chief was killed and at least 11 firefighters wounded when "wind-driven wildfires" struck the state on Friday, AP reports.

Context: Studies have found that human-caused climate change is the main driver behind increased wildfire risk in the U.S. West, and research "shows that changes in climate create warmer, drier conditions," notes the environmental nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

By the numbers: 90% of the West is in moderate to "exceptional" drought, per the U.S. Drought Monitor.

  • 98.94% of New Mexico is in moderate to exceptional drought, while 96.4% of Nebraska is in moderate to exceptional drought.

Of note: Several of the fires ignited or grew on Friday — driven by the drought, powerful winds gusting over 60 mph, high temperatures and extremely low humidity. New Mexico and Colorado both experienced dust storms as well as wildfires.

  • Santa Fe National Forest spokesperson Julie Anne Overton told the NYT that while conditions were improving in the short term, warm, dry weather was expected again later this week.
  • "I think we’re seeing climate change in action," she said.
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