There was the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000. It burned the Rev. Eric Larson’s childhood home.
Then there was the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. It threatened virtually all of Los Alamos, where he was born.
And last year, Larson’s church was turned into an evacuation center as a fire — albeit far smaller and less destructive — flared near Jemez Springs.
As 2018 heats up, with almost no winter moisture to tamp down the concern, the specter of the next big fire looms over the Jemez Mountains and much of the rest of New Mexico.
“It’s definitely on folks’ minds,” Larson says.
Throughout Northern New Mexico, residents talk about it in passing at the store and at church; at ballgames and businesses; at kitchen tables and office water coolers.
The dryness and the warm temperatures are nearly impossible to ignore, especially when your community is surrounded by forest on all sides. And with spring and summer approaching, federal and state agencies are calling in crews a few weeks ahead of the usual schedule — all eyes cast with a sense of foreboding on the Land of Enchantment’s meager snowpack and dense forests.
The question is: Will this year bring the big one?
Meteorologists say the snowstorms that have dusted the area in recent weeks will not put any significant dent in the drought conditions that cover virtually the entire state.
From prescribed burns to clearing brush, New Mexicans are preparing — perhaps more intentionally than 20 or 30 years ago, when the realities of climate change were not so painfully obvious.
Fire is a fact of life in these parts, after all. But data piling up show wildfire seasons in general are getting longer.
One fire may already offer a sign of things to come.
A fire spread rapidly earlier this month along the state lines of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado, burning more than 28,000 acres in one week.
The Stateline Fire, as it became known, received scant notice, churning as it did in a sparsely populated part of the plains.
But it pointed to the good news-bad news challenge facing the Southwest this year.
New Mexico enjoyed strong rainfall in 2017 up until about October, said state climatologist Dave DuBois.
That helped vegetation grow.
Then the precipitation mostly stopped and relatively warm temperatures dried out that same vegetation, leaving plenty of fuel for wildfires, DuBois said.
“There’s been a nice growth of forage in some areas, which has created a lot more fuel. Since it has been very dry, it’s the worst combination,” he said.
Consider, too, that much of Northern New Mexico’s forests already are choked with dead or unhealthy vegetation.
Add high winds, which have whipped across the state in recent weeks, and you’ve got prime fire conditions.
The National Interagency Fire Center issued an outlook earlier this month that calls for above-normal potential for large fires across most of the Southwest in April and May. With temperatures expected to remain above average, forecasters say that over the next couple months, precipitation will flow to the north of the state and New Mexico will be stuck with wind and relatively low humidity.
Virtually all of New Mexico is facing abnormally dry or drought conditions.
Blame it in part on La Niña — the pattern of cooling water around the equatorial reaches of the Pacific Ocean. For the American Southwest, it usually means drought as a ridge of high pressure sends storms around the region.
The polar vortex, forecasters say, is partly to blame, too. That’s the high-pressure mass of arctic air that has been stretching over the northeastern United States, bringing snow and cold temperatures but leaving the Southwest in a dry spell.
The National Interagency Fire Center’s outlook offered hope that monsoon rains will come on time or even earlier, bringing a good burst of moisture along and to the east of the Continental Divide as spring turns to summer. That is how it would usually work as this sort of La Niña system weakens.
But what is “usual” anymore?
DuBois cautioned that past trends might hold true in a changing climate.
And whatever this year brings, there seems little denying that fire season is getting longer.
In 2016, Matt Jolly, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, found wildfire season was more than a month longer in parts of the western United States than it was 35 years prior.
Without relief this season, it “could get really ugly” in Santa Fe and east toward the San Miguel County line, warned Todd Haines, Bernalillo District Forester for the New Mexico State Forestry Division.
The Jemez Mountains — home to two of the state’s most spectacular fires, Cerro Grande and Las Conchas — also are a concern, but devastating fires in that region over the past decade reduce the risk. Previous burn areas act like roadblocks for new blazes.
Bruce Hill, a spokesman for the Santa Fe National Forest, said officials have called in crews two to three weeks early to prepare for what he expects will be an “accelerated” season.
At least five Hotshot crews — comprising 20 expert firefighters each — are on call. Statewide, six helicopters and at least three air tankers, planes capable of dropping water and flame retardant, could be available if they’re not already in use on an out-of-state assignment.
Those resources are drawn from local, county, state and federal departments here in New Mexico. When it comes to fighting forest fires, it’s an all-hands-on-deck deal.
If a fire requires more resources, out-of-state departments will deliver — just as New Mexico agencies will loan their equipment to neighbors in need.
Preventive measures also are underway, Hill adds. Santa Fe National Forest officials have set nearly a dozen prescribed burns in the past six months.
Those controlled blazes help reduce the buildup of dry plants that otherwise could fuel a fire, officials say.
Lit strategically, they also improve the health of the forest, serve as access points for fighting wildfires, and protect residential areas and their water supplies from out-of-control blazes.
In the past week, officers have treated 755 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and another 4,450 acres on Rowe Mesa, a mountainous area southeast of Pecos, Hill said.
Though light snowpack is partly to blame for the heightened risk, it also has made it easier for crews to work in the forest during the winter. Less snow means easier access and terrain that’s dry but not too dry. Hill and Lance Elmore, a forest fire staff officer with the National Forest Service, said they wouldn’t have been able to start so many prescribed burns this winter with heavier snowfall.
There also is a slower sort of preparation underway — a cultural shift in the mountains around Northern New Mexico.
Haines, whose district includes Albuquerque and Santa Fe, has been in the firefighting business for 26 years. He’s seen problem areas come and go. The East Mountains near Albuquerque, he said, used to top the list of precarious spots. Since then, preventive measures have reduced the risk, but so has something else: community awareness.
Haines said he used to see a “hard-core resistance” to forest management.
Residents were “entrenched” and “passionate about their tress,” unwilling to hear the benefits of forestry on everything from wildlife habitats to fire prevention.
“That group of people kind of did a 180 as a group and community,” he says of the East Mountain residents. “You go to a public meeting out there now, and someone asks hard-core questions, you don’t even have to stand up. Someone else in the community will answer it.”
Someone like Larson or others who have seen devastation firsthand.
A pastor at Jemez Mountains Baptist Church, Larson also preaches preparedness.
After the Las Conchas Fire, he said, “I remember talking with a friend who said, ‘I didn’t think it could happen,’ It can happen.”
Sparked by a downed power line, that fire burned more than 150,000 acres in 2011 and destroyed dozens of homes. At the time, it was the largest fire in the state’s recorded history.
Larson has come to talk about preparing for wildfire as part of a daily routine.
In one sense, he sums it up as ensuring that when the sheriff drives down the road and gives a 15-minute warning to evacuate, you are not left wondering what to pack. Larson talks about having some necessities ready to go and keeping some items — like prescriptions — elsewhere, like a drawer at work in case home is blocked off for days or destroyed in a blaze.
He promotes, too, clearing brush and creating what is known as defensible space — a buffer between a building and the grass, trees and other vegetation vulnerable to fire — around residences. Defensible space can stop the spread of a fire, protect a home from catching fire and provide firefighters room to maneuver.
For the past eight years, Larson has helped organize annual workshops on preparing for wildfire. The next ones are coming up April 7, 14 and 21.
His efforts are paying off, he said.
Last year, a relatively small fire — the Cajete — flared near his home between Jemez Springs and the Valles Caldera.
Larson’s church became an evacuation shelter as crews closed off roads to fight the fire.
“There was not as much of the deer-in-the-headlights look,” Larson recalled.
Instead, he said, residents seemed more prepared and less surprised.
“Living in the mountains, that’s a reality you have to prepare for,” he says. “None of us want it to happen. We pray it doesn’t happen.”