Last weekend, the picturesque but impoverished mountain village of Mora, New Mexico was on notice to evacuate the valley as encroaching wildfire threatened to destroy the entire community of about 600.
The fires sparked and were quickly whipped up last Friday during an extreme wind event that triggered Dust Storm warnings from the National Weather Service and forced drivers off roads where visibility suddenly dropped to zero in scenes that seemed plucked from a Steinbeck novel.
So far Mora has been spared, as the fire has stayed mostly in the foothills and larger slopes to the south, burning 300 buildings while laying waste to entire ranches and herds of cattle. So far, no injuries or deaths have bene reported.
But now, with the merged Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires about one-third contained after scorching over 65,000 acres, this weekend’s forecast calls for more dry winds gusting in excess of 60 miles per hour, creating extreme fire weather.
High winds have a triple threat effect of drying out fuels for fires to burn, driving the flames to spread more quickly and hindering firefighting operations, including grounding air crews.
“Fridays haven’t been our friend,” said Jason Coyle from the Santa Fe National Forest. “And we don’t anticipate this one’s going to be our friend either.”
Coyle says a priority for firefighting crews is watching for the potential of winds to carry embers north to Eagle Peak, which overlooks Mora. The town is the county seat for Mora County, which is consistently among the poorest counties in New Mexico, itself among the poorest states in the nation. The community consists largely of ranching families that have worked the isolated mountain valley for generations. Many have refused to evacuate, choosing instead to remain and look over their properties.
Coyle reiterated the call to evacuate from threatened areas, emphasizing that human activities as seemingly benign as a chain being dragged along a roadway can spark additional fires this weekend.
The fire is the largest burning in the US right now, and it comes early in a wildfire season that seems to have blended into the end of last year’s season. More extreme wind events drove winter fires in nearby Colorado that destroyed homes in the suburbs of Denver. Winter and early season fires in the Rockies have become more common in recent years as climate change drives warmer, drier conditions across the region than in past decades.
Earlier this month, the McBride Fire tore through the mountain resort town of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico, destroying homes and killing an elderly couple that was unable to escape from their burning residence.
A fire nearly as large as Hermit’s Peak is burning through largely unpopulated lands to the north of Mora, while crews also work a smaller fire not far from Los Alamos National Labs northwest of Santa Fe.
All in all, New Mexico has already seen nearly the same amount of acreage burned in the first four months of the year as the state would normally expect to see torched over the course of an entire year.
While crews continue to bulldoze fire breaks and shuffle resources to protect property, the weather forecast will continue to offer little assistance. The extended forecast for northern New Mexico calls for sun, no precipitation and more wind.