Matthew Hurteau spends a lot of time here on the eastern flank of the Jemez Mountains, checking on seedlings and dodging a sunburn. On a mid-July afternoon, rain drops from monsoon clouds in the valley south of us. But here, up above 7,000 feet, it’s sunny and hot. Until recently, this craggy landscape was carpeted by a dense pine forest. But today, as we look across the thousands of acres where the 2011 Las Conchas fire burned at its hottest, we’re taking in a panoramic view of the Sangre de Cristos to the north and Cochiti Reservoir and the Sandia Mountains down the Rio Grande Valley.
New Mexico’s wildfire season typically begins in May or June. But it’s only March, and New Mexicans are already dealing with wildfires. Earlier this month, a fire ignited on Kirtland Air Force Base, burning about 200 acres. The fire’s cause is still under investigation, according to base officials. But a lack of coordination between the base and local fire departments has worried some East Mountain residents.
On the edge of the Valle Grande in northern New Mexico stands a grove of towering ponderosa pines. The trees, many of them between 250 and 400 years old, comprise what’s called the History Grove, and they offer a snapshot into what the forests of the Jemez Mountains looked like centuries ago—before widespread grazing in the late 19th century and decades of fire suppression by the federal government. During a recent trip there, I was reminded of what goes into protecting and maintaining our forests and landscapes. Land management, as it’s called, is made of up of meetings and programs, line-item budgets and public comment periods. And sometimes, expensive lawsuits and bitter battles.
As of this morning, the 1,400-acre Cajete Fire in the Jemez Mountains was 80 percent contained, and all of the evacuees have been allowed to return home. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Support New Mexico’s best environmental coverage. [/perfectpullquote]The wildfire ignited after visitors to the Santa Fe National Forest abandoned a campfire about a mile northeast of the community of Sierra de los Pinos. The site remains under investigation. The Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest has experienced a rash of abandoned and unattended campfires so far this spring.
According to the Santa Fe National Forest, a wildfire ignited in the Jemez Ranger District Thursday. Smoke was first reported at 10:47 a.m.
The fire is dubbed the El Cajete Fire. As of 1 p.m., the fire is estimated to be 100 acres in size and spreading. Engines, air tankers, a helicopter and ground crews are working to control the fire. Additional teams of fire fighters are expected to arrive tonight and tomorrow.
After a snowy winter and a relatively wet spring, some of New Mexico’s forests are starting to dry out. And quickly. During their Wednesday morning fire call, officials with the Santa Fe National Forest heard the bad news: The National Weather Service forecast calls for increasingly hot temperatures with the possibility for thunderstorms on Sunday and Monday. After that, conditions will be hot and dry for the foreseeable future. “Leadership is looking at the possibility of fire restrictions,” said Julie Anne Overton, acting public affairs officer at the Santa Fe National Forest.
The election results are in from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and progressive candidates continued a trend that began in 2009. In Bernalillo County, Karen Dunning won with three times the votes of Pat McCraw. The Pueblo of Sandia’s Derrick Lente, now also a state representative, soundly defeated Orlando Lucero. And Bernalillo County’s Joaquín Baca ran unopposed. The closest race in the district occurred in Socorro County, where Valeria Moore beat out James Lee Martin by just ten votes.
As we wrote earlier today, fire protection officers were busy keeping an eye on New Mexico’s national forests over the three-day weekend. Related story: Fire protection officers strain to keep up with holiday crowds
This morning, the numbers came in: In the Jemez District of the Santa Fe National Forest, officers found 19 abandoned campfires. They found 13 on Monday alone. That brings the total this year to 49. Across the entire Santa Fe National Forest, officers found 41 abandoned or unattended campfires over Memorial Day weekend.
While thousands of people poured into the mountains to enjoy the three-day weekend, federal employees hustled around the forests, trying to keep visitors safe, protect special areas and prevent wildfires. It’s not an easy job. Like many public lands, national forests in New Mexico and across the country have experienced a jump in visitors in recent years. Fire Protection Officer Ron Gallegos has worked full-time for the U.S Forest Service for 37 years. Just shy of 60 years old, he grew up spending time in the area where he now works, the Jemez District of the Santa Fe National Forest, and fishing the Rio Cebolla.
First there’s a spark, and then the fire. We all stare at the sky, smell the smoke. After the trees and brush and roots are gone, floods roar through arroyos and down hillsides. Weeds invade as soon as the ground has cooled. Often, the long-term changes aren’t that obvious, especially when compared with flames and floods.