It could be only a matter of time before a devastating wildfire strikes southeast New Mexico, as destructive blazes rage in the state to the north and west.
Firefighters and other personnel in the region said they were at the ready and taking preemptive action as worsening drought conditions, unseasonably high temperatures and strong, stoking winds creating conditions that could see fire kick up and spread fast.
Swaths of Carlsbad Caverns National Park were closed Wednesday in anticipation of the danger, including all background country areas and permitted caves along with several of the park’s most popular hiking trails.
Closures were in effect for the Old Guano, Slaughter Canyon, Yucca Canyon, Guadalupe Ridge, Rattlesnake Canyon, Juniper Ridge, Double Canyon and Ussery trails.
Several access roads were closed due to high grass in the area that could serve as fuel for the fires, as open flames and cooking stoves were banned across the park.
These followed the closure of all hiking trails and most camping areas at Guadalupe Mountains National Park and a forest-wide closure at Lincoln National Forest.
The National Park Service reported 14 new fires were started as of May 20 in its southwest region, with nine fires burning more than 568,751 acres.
The largest in New Mexico history, the Hermits Peak Fire was at 311,148 acres, per the report, and about 40 percent contained since it started in April in northern New Mexico near Las Vegas.
That followed the McBride Fire, which burned about 6,000 acres and destroyed about 200 structures, mostly homes, in the Ruidoso area and Lincoln National Forest.
As of May 23, the Black Fire had burned about 146,679 acres in a area northwest of Truth or Consequences and was only 8 percent contained since it started May 13.
“Extreme fire danger continues to persist due to prolonged hot, dry, and windy weather,” read a statement from the Park Service. “These factors result in extremely dry vegetation that is highly susceptible to even the smallest spark.”
About 5,800 wildland firefighters were assigned to the region by the Park Service, records show, for the southwest and southern Rocky Mountains areas.
Could wildfires come to southeast New Mexico?
Dry, hot conditions throughout the state could mean more fires in the coming weeks.
About 37 percent of the state and most of the southeast region was listed under “exceptional drought,” the most severe conditions, as of May 17, per the latest report from the National Drought Monitor.
That was an increase of more than 10 percent in the last week, from about 25 percent on May 10, and a more than 30 percent increase since the 3 percent reported February 15, per the monitor.
Ric Gatewood, fire ecologist with the National Park Service based at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, said fires burning in other parts of the state drew resources like fire engines and personnel away from southeast New Mexico.
That, combined with high vegetation created by last year’s rains, could present a challenge, he said, with the men and women tasked with containing a blaze should it pick up in the remote deserts of southeast New Mexico.
“It’s bad this year,” Gatewood said. “It’s extremely dry, we have a lot of winds. It’s consistent. We have winds that last a longer time. Coupled with the fact that we had a lot of moisture last year. Those factors set the stage for a lot of fire growth this year.
“The risk for us is that all the resources are going to those big fires. It puts us at a disadvantage.”
In preparation for hotter weather in the summer and no sign yet of heavy rains, Gatewood said the park service’s firefighters and related staff at Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns were conducting operations to remove vegetation from around structures, hoping to limit fuel.
And as the summer sets in, he said the higher temperatures would be met by diminishing winds, meaning if a fire does start it could be quickly contained.
“If we don’t get any rain, the risk will remain high. In May and June, we get really dry weather, warm temperatures and a lot of wind. As we get into June and July, the winds will diminish,” Gatewood said.
“That’s the driver of fires here. Right now, it’s been pretty consistent. In the summer months, the potential for fire starts and large fire growth is limited just because there’s less wind.”
But the quelling effect of weakening winds pales in comparison to that off strong rains Gatewood said he could only hope for during the summer monsoon months.
“The monsoon is expected in June and July,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get some relief by June.”
A heavy monsoon can mean problems for the following seasons, as vegetation grows up and then dries in the winter, providing ideal burning materials for fires to expand, Gatewood said.
This he said, was the main cause of the devastation up north where land is less fragmented by development as in the southeast New Mexico oil patch.
“It has a lot to do with the fuel build up over the past several years. That coupled with the drought and this unusual weather pattern. Those three lined up to set the stage for these big fires in northern New Mexico,” Gatewood said.
“We have a lot more fragmented landscape, a lot more roads and oil and gas development. That really limited how the fires can spread. It’s pretty patchy. You’ll have a patchy fuel that will burn until it’s gone. In northern New Mexico, you’ll have fuel that’ll run all the way up into Colorado.”
That doesn’t mean local firefighters in southeast New Mexico weren’t busy all spring.
Josh Mack, fire chief at Eddy County Fire and Rescue said its volunteer firefighters stationed throughout the county responded to 62 grass fires in April, an unseasonably high number, he said, for early spring but not a risk unlike most years in the arid region.
The difference this year, Mack said, is more natural fuel from last year’s monsoon.
“We’re always at high risk,” Mack said. “If you drive around the county, it’s all grown up. That can be a problem. We really need some moisture.”
Should a large fire take hold, Mack said personnel would funnel to the site of the blaze, secure the area and begin cooling it down with water hoses and other flame retardants.
He said fire crews take extra care to ensure no leftover embers are left to burn in the high winds as they could create to spot fires and the beginning of another threatening inferno.
“Our objective is to cut the head off the fire,” Mack said. “When we do our mop, we try to keep the area cool, because embers can spread. If there’s a gust of wind it can carry it miles. The fire up by Las Vegas is a good example of a fire growing because of spot fires.”
Until a similar fire does attack the scenic but imperiled landscapes of southeast New Mexico, Mack said his crews will be ready all summer.
“It has a lot of potential,” he said of the coming season. “As long as it’s dry, it’ll burn. There’s a lot of risk.”