In the aftermath of the monstrous Marshall Fire that devoured nearly 1,000 homes near Boulder, Colo., many people wonder what the chances are of such a destructive blaze igniting in the Santa Fe area.
Fire experts say the risk is increasing.
A changing climate, which has contributed to the Southwest’s 22-year drought, is raising temperatures, drying the landscape and changing weather patterns, making more neighborhoods vulnerable to wildfires, especially those in wooded areas.
Santa Fe County’s population has nearly doubled to 145,000 since 1980, leading to more homes being built at the edge of forests that have become more fire-prone. Forest and fire officials commonly refer to such areas as the wildland-urban interface.
Drought conditions have been exacerbated by La Niña, a Pacific Ocean weather pattern that pushes precipitation north, leaving the Southwest drier than normal through the winter and much of the spring. This winter, it’s also kicking up more winds that can fan a wildfire.
Northern New Mexico is no stranger to wind-driven infernos. The Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 destroyed 235 homes in Los Alamos and burned dozens of structures at Los Alamos National Laboratory as it scorched an estimated 44,000 acres.
Fire officials say another catastrophic wildfire could happen, including in Santa Fe.
“By all means, it could,” said Nathan Miller, the city’s wildland fire supervisor. “If we have that perfect storm of dryness, hot, wind, you know, just in the right alignment — we could be looking at a disaster like the Marshall Fire.”
Santa Fe overall is one big wildland-urban interface, putting most if not all communities at some risk from a potential wildfire, Miller said. “Whether you’re impacted by smoke, whether you’re impacted by flames pushing through.”
Local, state and federal agencies try to allay wildfire risks through controlled burning and selective cutting to reduce the amount of flammable debris, trees and other vegetation, especially near residences.
But another fire official noted it’s impossible to cover all vulnerable locations, even with systematic prescribed burns.
“You kind of have to pick your battles,” said Terrance Gallegos, deputy fire officer for Santa Fe National Forest.
Climate change amplifies dangers
On Dec. 30, the Marshall Fire was stoked by winds gusting up to 115 mph, the force of a Category 2 hurricane, causing it to rapidly spread in dry grasslands that acted as fuel.
Authorities say the fire started near Eldorado Springs and roared east into the towns of Superior and Louisville. About 35,000 people evacuated and two are still missing, possibly killed. Thousands are displaced.
Although not the largest, this fire was the most destructive in Colorado’s history in terms of effects on people. How it started has not been officially determined, but witness accounts point to possible human causes.
A Colorado state climatologist tweeted that the fire was set up by a wet spring that spurred heavy grass growth, followed by a hot, dry summer that baked the plains, turning the thicker grass into tinder.
The ravaging wildfire in a neighboring state is sobering because New Mexico shares some of the same factors, such as two decades of hotter, drier weather parching the landscape, inconsistent seasonal storms and neighborhoods abutting increasingly flammable areas.
Climate change is amplifying fire dangers in New Mexico beyond raising the temperatures and drying vegetation, a forest official wrote in an email, noting it’s also causing crucial shifts in weather patterns.
“It’s not the few degrees of average warming that’s directly impacting fires,” wrote Chuck Maxwell, a U.S. Forest Service meteorologist. “There are identified ‘critical fire weather patterns’ that both Marshall and Cerro Grande [fires] were subjected to and climate change appears to be affecting the nature of them, including their frequency, severity, time of year and location.”
Four critical fire weather conditions that can cause more extreme fires are low humidity, strong winds, unstable air and drought, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s website.
That’s not to say warming and drying trends haven’t affected forests. They have led to the fire season being two weeks longer than it was 20 years ago, Maxwell wrote.
But forest officials now say the fire season is year-round, with the aim of encouraging people to act cautiously in wooded areas, no matter the season, whether they live there or are visiting.
Many Santa Fe-area neighborhoods and communities have been developed in wooded surroundings and some border forests, immersing the homes in “wildland fuels” that can burn, Gallegos said. Among them are Eldorado, Pecos, La Cueva, Glorieta, Jemez Springs and even the foothills within the city.
“Any community that is adjacent to wildland fuels … is definitely susceptible to experiencing a bad event if things line up,” Gallegos said. “Folks need to be cognizant of that. They’re never really out of the woods when it comes to fire danger, especially when we have these La Niña years.”
A reminder of the constant fire hazards was the recent cold front that came through the region, bringing high winds that toppled many trees in the Santa Fe area.
A storm doesn’t have to produce gusts over 100 mph to stoke a big wildfire, just sustained winds combined with dry conditions and an ignition source, Gallegos said.
Wildfire risks widespread
Crews are clearing vegetation, debris and other flammable material from various sections of the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed as part of a National Environmental Protection Act project.
Priorities are given to areas of value, such as watersheds and communities next to forests.
An inherent danger of a wildland-urban interface is that someone who lives there could do something careless to ignite a fire, Gallegos said.
That’s why he has concerns about Glorieta — because it’s near busy Interstate 25, where a motorist might toss a lit cigarette out the window or drag a tow chain across the pavement, creating a spark, he said.
Glorieta has no controlled burns on record, making it vulnerable to wildfires, Gallegos said, and none are scheduled because it’s outside the NEPA project’s boundaries. That points to the limits of the agency’s fuel-removing efforts to protect homes in a wildland-urban interface, which is why residents should learn the fire risks that their communities face, he added.
The 2017 Santa Rosa Fire in California showed risks extend beyond the people who live next to wildlands, as the intense winds carried the fire’s embers to neighborhoods a good distance away and ignited homes there, said Anne Bradley, forest program director for Nature Conservancy’s New Mexico chapter.
“Basically a suburb burned up; it wasn’t just people’s homes that might have been adjacent to wildland,” Bradley said. “Embers pushed by winds can go so far, and those things get into people’s woodpiles or other flammable material.”
Miller, the city wildland superintendent, agreed, saying everyone in Santa Fe should be on guard, not just a community on a forested hill.
“There are parts of the city that if you get that wind event, you’re going to get some embers blowing through,” Miller said.
One resident said her hillside neighborhood in the Upper Canyon Road area faces great fire risk because the homes are intermeshed with thick stands of piñon and juniper trees, whose sap makes them extremely flammable.
“It would be a highly destructive fire,” said Melissa Savage, a retired geography professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “In the piñon-juniper, it burns canopy to canopy because they’re almost touching. Any kind of wind carries the fire incredibly fast and incredibly hot. Some of those trees actually can explode.”
A wind blowing through the canyon would create a funnel effect that would spread the fire swiftly through the neighborhoods, she said.
The Boulder area’s wintertime megafire is a manifestation of climate change causing fire risks all year round in the Southwest, putting added stress on residents and fire crews, Savage said. “For a fire to burn in the dead of winter from house to house and destroy a thousand houses — that is unprecedented.”
Preparing for a big fire
As fire risks grow, it’s important for people to take precautions, which include being ready to evacuate and building “defensible spaces” around their homes, forest officials say.
The Forest Service provides a web page with diagrams instructing people how they can better safeguard their homes against wildfires.
Some preventive steps are basic, such as removing leaves and other flammable debris from roofs and yards.
Other tips include spacing trees at least 18 feet apart and removing vegetation and swaths of grass at the property’s edge to create a fire break.
Miller suggests residents sign up for Alert Santa Fe, which notifies them of fires, accidents, road closures and weather events that might affect them.
If they receive a message about a dangerous wildfire near them, they should evacuate immediately, he added.
Gallegos said creating defensible spaces means removing trees close to a dwelling, a practice that helps ensure the owners will have a home to return to after they evacuate.
It gives firefighters a safer space to work when trying to extinguish a blaze and save a home, he said. Without that space, fire crews won’t go into a jumble of burning trees because it’s too risky.
Savage said it’s difficult for homeowners to give up the aesthetics and privacy of trees surrounding their houses.
“They don’t like to cut down trees next to their house,” she said. “But it’s going to be important for them to make that decision to protect themselves from these fires.”