Los Alamos Fire Could Become the Largest in New Mexico History

Article excerpt

Big fires have happened before in New Mexico, but scientists see a recent pattern that may be the most severe since the last Ice Age. Among the causes: fuel buildup due to fire suppression, a decline in the annual snowpack, and warmer climate.

The Las Conchas fire, burning its way through the mountains and canyons around Los Alamos, N.M., is about to join Arizona's Wallow fire as a state record-breaker. As of noon local time Thursday, the Las Conchas blaze had consumed 92,710 acres near the city of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation's three nuclear-weapons labs. That's roughly 23,000 acres more than the fire had claimed Wednesday. Most of the additional growth in the past day came as the western section of the fire, driven by southerly winds, moved north from the Los Alamos area. By midday Friday, Las Conchas is expected to capture the dubious title of largest single forest fire on record in the state. The previous record-holder was the Dry Lakes fire, which burned 94,000 acres near the Gila National Forest in southern New Mexico in 2003.

Combined with another fire in the Gila National Forest that ignited this past April and burned nearly 90,000 acres, three of the state's largest forest fires have occurred within the past 10 years, according to data from the forestry division of the state's Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department.

From the standpoint of geological history, "these big, severe fires are not unprecedented" in hot, dry intervals the region has experienced during the past 10,000 years, says Grant Meyer, a geologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who studies the interaction of climate and weathering processes - which can be affected by wildfires - on the landscape. "But recent experience down here suggests that what we're looking at in the last few decades is at least as severe and maybe more so than anything we've seen since the last Ice Age," he adds. A build-up of fuels from forestry practices that emphasized fire suppression is partly responsible, he says. "But part of it as well - and the data are very good on this - it's climatic warming" as human industrial activity and land-use changes have pumped increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, he says. …