Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Fires

The sense of place around here in New Mexico includes an understanding that Fire will come, and sometimes it will be... awful.

When I was driving east through Gallup this trip (two weekends ago), the smoke from the Wallow Fire in Arizona, some 150 miles away, was settling on the town in a choking gray and yellow fog. It was pretty bad, but the situation in Albuquerque the previous week had been much worse, as the smoke lingered over the city like a shroud. People were advised not to use their swamp coolers or open windows or doors because of the smoke. Oh. Swamp coolers are the main cooling devices in this part of the nation, and going without them in triple digit temperatures is probably worse than breathing the smoke after it's been washed by the water cooler filter pads. Well, you would think anyway.

After I got out here to our place in the East Mountains, the smoke situation was mostly tolerable, though there were a couple of days when it was severe.

The Raton Fire caused much grief up north, but it's mostly out now. There were some smaller fires in the Manzanos and around Estancia, a really big one by Carlsbad, and another over by Clovis, but all of those have been mostly contained.

I could see the smoke plume from the Pacheco Fire up in Santa Fe when it started, and I thought, "Oh no." The fire has been burning in the Santa Fe National Forest pretty much uncontained ever since. It's not pleasant for the locals but the fire is not burning toward nor particularly near the city, so... it's become kind of the New Normal, at least for now. I saw the smoke plume from the Pacheco Fire when I was up in Santa Fe on Sunday, but there was little or no smoke in town which was a relief.

As I was leaving town on Sunday, though, I saw a HUGE new smoke plume rising from the Jemez Mountains to the west, so astonishing that people were stopping on the highway to gawp at it.

That's the Las Conchas Fire that's burning so close to Los Alamos (and Cochiti Lake, but who has ever heard of that?) right now and has caused the full evacuation of the town of Los Alamos and the closure of the Nuclear Lab. Los Alamos suffered terrible fire damage about 11 years ago, and the locals are not amused that it could happen again, though there is some relief that the forests that burned in 2000 haven't regrown to any great extent. The Lab personnel claim they have been doing forest thinning around the Lab since the 2000 fire, so they aren't expecting things to get really bad even if the new fire comes much closer to the Lab than it already has (some spot fires quickly put out.)

Hundreds of homes were burned in Los Alamos in 2000, and that's what they're worried could happen again. Yes. It's a valid concern all over New Mexico and wherever people live in the forest. There have been many devastating fires over the years, blasting through the forest sectors like bombs, leaving nothing but cinders in their wake.

The Governor is pleading with New Mexicans to avoid buying or using fireworks this Fourth of July, and I've noticed that my neighbors around here, some of whom like to blow off fireworks all year round -- cause it's fun and pretty! -- have been very discreet. If they are blowing off fireworks, there's no sign of it.

People know how dangerous it is.

They say the Las Conchas Fire was probably started by downed power lines. Other fires have been started by sparks from ATVs, and one in the Bosque in Albuquerque the other day was apparently started by some fool with fireworks (oops!). Typically fires at this time of year start from lightning strikes, but there's been very little of that. There's no rain, none to speak of since February -- and that was snow. There are very few clouds. It is major drought time, as severe as I've ever seen it here, though old timers say it was worse about ten years ago. That was the worst drought any of them had witnessed in these parts. But this is dry country even when it isn't in drought.

Fire is part of the natural cycle.

It's usually not so pervasive. Even when the fires are relatively distant, there are times when you feel surrounded just the same. It's part of the Place.

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