SANTA FE, NM — Smoke billows, like a white veil covering the sky, on the way from Albuquerque to this beautiful city of 84,000.
Historically, New Mexico’s wildfire season began in May or June, but this year, wildfires erupted in New Mexico’s dry deserts in April. On April 23, more than 20 wildfires blazed in 16 of the state’s 33 counties. Last week, two of them merged into one megafire, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. As of Sunday, the New York Times reported, it had burned nearly 104,000 acres — more than 160 square miles — and smoke from it and other wildfires had blanketed much of northern New Mexico.
About 6,000 people from 32 communities in the area have been ordered to evacuate, and 1,100 firefighters have been working to contain the blaze.
Scientists say that this is not just a strange occurrence but a new normal caused by climate change.
“We’re really seeing an increase in these fires beyond normal summers, normal summers, really across the West,” Kaitlyn Weber, a data analyst at research organization Climate Central, told Yahoo News.
Warmer temperatures, which cause more evaporation, dry out the landscape and create conditions for wildfires. In addition, climate change causes more extreme weather, such as warm winter days, and can even lead to strong winds — another risk factor for fires — due to the disruption of jet streams.
“We had the Great Marshall Fire in December in Colorado, we had the Big Sur fire here in California in January. [Fires] just happened all year long,” Weber said.
“Our risk season is very early and dangerous,” New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said on April 23, by which time 200 buildings in his state had caught fire.
In August 2021, Climate Central released a report showing that the number of “fire weather days” — hot, dry, windy days poised for wildfires — has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Analyzing data from 225 weather stations in 17 states across the West since 1973, Climate Central found that these days have become much more common, especially in New Mexico.
“Several parts of New Mexico, Texas, and Southern California have experienced some of the largest increases in fire weather days each year,” the report summary states. “The New Mexico region now experiences two months of more fire weather than it did nearly half a century ago.”
“As climate change continues to warm our Earth, it increases temperatures across the landscape,” Weber said. “This is causing a drying trend that is really happening across the Southwest. So we’re seeing warmer temperatures, drier days and, if the winds are strong, very dangerous conditions.”
New Mexico’s drying – a February study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the past 20 years were the driest two decades in at least 1,200 years – was largely responsible.
“As it gets warmer, then evaporation increases, things get drier, plants get drier, basically setting up fuel for these big fires. So when that happens, they burn longer, more severely,” Weber said.
Along New Mexico State Road 518, which partly runs along the scenic High Road route to Taos, one can see pale, dead grass and pines sitting like firewood along the roadside. Several sections of intersecting roads were blocked, to keep traffic from getting too close to the ongoing blaze.
Living near nature, with the desert in sight, is central to the charm that has attracted tourists and new residents to the state. As a result, Climate Central estimates that more than 1.4 million people in New Mexico, about 70% of the population, live in areas at risk of wildfires, the so-called “wilderness-urban interface.”
Currently, smoke comes and goes from Santa Fe and other nearby towns, depending on the wind. At best, the sky overhead was clear and the smoke to the west created a surprising magenta sunset. At worst, smoke settles all around you, creating a mist-like haze, and can be smelled and tasted in the air. On those days, the Air Quality Index (AQI) – the Environmental Protection Agency’s air pollution measure – jumped into the “unhealthy” range. Taos has the condition on Sunday, and Santa Fe has it on Monday.
“This morning, I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t see the mountains, when I left my house. I couldn’t see any sights, or any sights, so there was no point in going hiking today,” Whitney Joiner, a Taos, NM resident, told Yahoo News on Sunday. “Not only can you not breathe – breathing is painful, and people are wearing masks – and then a friend of mine who went hiking with me, he has asthma and he said he was inside with the air purifier and he was still coughing. ”
“The Air Quality Index is 159, and when I look up ‘should it be out at 159?’ it’s like, ‘No,’” Joiner added. “I didn’t really know anything about AQI, but it was a new way of looking at my life.”
Climate change also complicates the implementation of long-neglected forest maintenance, where overgrown areas are intentionally burned with controlled fires, which is necessary to reduce the risk of forest fires that can spiral out of control and threaten communities.
“One of these fires was actually a defined burning fire that literally burned out of control when the wind blew,” Weber noted. “As we see more of these fire weather days, we’ll see a decrease in the number of days you can do a defined burn, which is helpful, but you need the right conditions to do that.”
Other states across the West have also experienced severe fires in recent years. A 2016 study from Climate Central found that, “Across the Western US, the annual average number of large fires (larger than 1,000 acres) burned each year has more than tripled between the 1970s and 2010s. .” Last summer, wildfires engulfed the Canadian states of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.
In February, a United Nations report said a “global fire crisis” was developing due to climate change, pointing to recent outbreaks of extreme fires in countries such as Australia and even in Russian cities north of the Arctic Circle.
“As long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we can expect that we will continue to see this warming trend, we will continue to see this drying trend — at least here in the Southwest and West, and beyond. we’re going to see more of these days of fire weather per year,” Weber said.