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‘Firefighters out there in the snow’: wildfires rage early in parched west

RUIDOSO, New Mexico – The first major wildfire of the year in New Mexico started this week near a campground where visitors can walk to see hundreds of prehistoric petroglyphs. After burning nearly 6,000 acres in a matter of days, the blaze remained only 13 percent contained.

In Arizona’s Hualapai Mountains, authorities ordered the evacuation of 200 homes this week as screaming winds propelled flames through dry, brittle pine forests. And in California, a fire has threatened the facility of a Los Angeles County sheriff stockpiling weapons and ammunition, in an area where the winter snowpack has been reduced to a tiny fraction of its usual size.

“Another fire, so early in the spring, is spreading so fast – it’s hard to understand,” said Pamela Witte, who has watched nervously this week as smoke flood the skies near her home in the mountain town of Ruidoso , New Mexico.

A severe multi-year drought that could be among the worst in centuries, made worse by a shortage of monsoon rains in 2020 and disappointing snowfall during the winter, has helped trigger large forest fires in months over. earlier than usual, raising fears that large swathes of the American Southwest could face a difficult burn season.

“We’re looking at widespread fire activity this year, and by widespread, I mean statewide,” said Tiffany Davila of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. Twelve times more land in Arizona burned in the first four months of the year than in the same period in 2020.

Climate change has altered rainfall patterns in the southwest, drying out soils and vegetation, intensifying forest fire seasons and threatening water supplies for people and agriculture. Although 2019 has been a relatively wet year, the past year has been dry and hot, and research indicates that global warming increases the chances of seeing the same.

“The risks only increase with each year,” said Wendy Mason, a New Mexico wildfire prevention manager. “This year’s drought in the state is possibly the worst since records were kept.”

And there’s a new factor in the mix: As the coronavirus pandemic continues, more travelers are venturing into the outdoors – 15 national parks set attendance records in 2020 – raising fears that people unfamiliar with fire safety can start more fires. Already, humans are the source of more than 80% of forest fires in the United States.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire that started Monday near the campground in the Lincoln National Forest and quickly spread to the boundaries of a ski resort owned by the Mescalero Apache tribe. Despite the rain and light snowfall this week, the Three Rivers fire, as it is known, continued to burn on Friday – a grim warning of what could happen in southern New Mexico, hit by Drought.

“It’s scary when you can see the smoke rising over the mountains,” said Anthony Torres, a pastor at a church in Alamogordo who organized a relief effort, giving breasts and other meals. warm to firefighters and evacuees. “People are naturally afraid.”

Parts of the towns of Ruidoso and Capitan, New Brunswick, mistook the feel of a staging area for a disaster area as fire teams from across the country descended to coordinate efforts to control the blaze .

Based at the Ruidoso convention center, they deployed into the surrounding forest to build lines of fire that could protect the Mescalero Apache reserve, and made plans to protect neighborhoods in the event of a fire outbreak or change of direction. No life had been lost nor any structure burned on Friday afternoon.

In Mohave County, Arizona, about 50 miles from the California border, Flag Fire forced the evacuation of around 200 homes this week as it destroyed nearly 1,300 acres of the pine-covered Hualapai Mountains. The fire was 34% contained on Friday afternoon.

Arizona has already seen 311 fires this year, up from 127 in the first four months of 2020, Ms. Davila of the forestry department said; 15,555 acres burned, compared to 1,290 acres in the same period last year.

“We don’t normally see a lot of fire activity in Mohave County until May or June,” she said. “We’re pretty much in extreme drought across most of the state.”

Poor forest management, allowing the accumulation of grasses, shrubs, fallen branches and small trees that can be used as fuel for forest fires, has also contributed to the intensification of the fire season. Some of the fires raging in the West threaten places that were hit by colossal fires just a few years ago.

Windstorms in California sparked dozens of wildfires across the state during the generally calm January. Some burned down in the same areas devastated months earlier by one of the largest fires on record in the state, the CZU Lightning Complex, fueled in part by the unusually dry conditions in California in 2020.

“It also set all-time records for the hottest summer,” said Jeffrey Mount, senior researcher at the Water Policy Center at the California Institute of Public Policy, adding, “It was a burn. “

The fire that threatened the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s guns and ammunition this week burned 650 acres, triggering mandatory evacuations and road closures before crews managed to control much of the blaze. Depleted reservoirs and snowpack levels that are a small fraction of normal for this time of year heighten fears about the risk of wildfires in California.

“We have been using groundwater unsustainably for over a century,” said Mr. Mount. “This had a cascade of unintended and unwanted consequences: the drying up of community wells, the subsidence of land several feet, the drying up of springs and wetlands.”

Some of the changes needed to reduce the threat of wildfires are relatively modest, experts say, such as encouraging homeowners to remove pine needles from their roofs and gutters or removing vegetation that grows too close to their homes.

Such measures could curb the destructive nature of disasters like the campfire, whose flames quickly engulfed homes in the town of Paradise, Calif., Which were built in heavily forested areas. The wildfire, one of the deadliest in the United States, killed at least 85 people in 2018, including people whose charred remains were found in vehicles stranded in frantic escape attempts.

In a pivot of firefighting policies that sought to put out fires whenever they appear, wildland fire experts are also urging authorities to clear forests more aggressively and conduct controlled burns to eliminate the blight. vegetation that can fuel massive fires.

Yet these efforts remain modest compared to the scale of the wildfires that have plagued much of the West, including those in recent weeks. The Three Rivers fire that still burns in New Mexico is “particularly complex,” said Laura Rabon, spokesperson for the Lincoln National Forest.

After it spread to remote wooded areas, teams had to scale the hillsides, fighting the blaze of the granite escarpments. Then the snow started to fall, as if to remind those on the ground that it was early in the year to fight such a big forest fire.

“We have firefighters out there in the snow, think about it,” Ms. Rabon said. “We were talking about the fire season. Now we are talking about the year of the fires.

Jill cowan contributed to the Los Angeles report, and Henry Fountain Albuquerque.

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