New Mexico’s Largest-Ever Wildfire Adds to Already Destructive Fire Season

Over the past couple weeks, we’ve written about the Wallow Fire burning in western Arizona – it’s the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Now, there’s a new kid on the block; the Las Conchas Fire, burning one state over, has become the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, having already burned nearly 100,000 acres (156 square miles).

The Las Conchas Fire, burning near Los Alamos, N.M., has become the largest wildfire in the state's history. Credit: LANL/flickr.

Since June 26, flames from Las Conchas have been licking at the outskirts of Los Alamos, N.M. and threatening the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of three nuclear-weapons labs in the country. Earlier this week news reports raised concerns over whether the fire would reach the lab and potentially release nuclear radiation. However, the county’s fire chief, Doug Tucker, said Wednesday that preventative burns around the Lab’s property were successful, and there was little chance the fire would pose a serious risk. Nevertheless, as a precautionary measure, the Lab is currently closed to all but ‘essential services,' and authorities are testing the air for radioactive material.

Like this year’s other big wildfires — to date, 2011 is the biggest wildfire year for the U.S. in more than a decade — this immense burn is connected to the unusually dry climate over the past winter and spring. Since December 2010, New Mexico has seen both above average temperatures and rainfall amounts that are well below normal — the past few months have been among the driest on record for the state. While officials don’t yet know how the wildfire started, the heat and unrelenting drought have undoubtedly primed the land for burning.

Credit: Ilissa Ocko for Climate Central.

To better understand the connection between these Southwestern fires and long-term climate change, I recommend reading our recent explainer (it also covers how La Niña conditions contributed to this unusually large fire season). Wildfires obviously occur naturally, and they can be a vital part of maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem. But in general, as global temperatures keep rising, the risk of very large wildfires is increasing in the West.

Warmer-than-average temperatures evaporate more moisture off the land than usual, which leaves plants dried out and easy to ignite. Climate models project that the Southwest will keep warming up and drying out during this century, which means that conditions will be more conducive to wildfires. As my colleague Andrew Freedman wrote two weeks ago:

Perhaps most worrisome, a recent report from the National Research Council found that 1.8°F of warming from current conditions (arguably the amount of warming to which we are already committed because of our current and past emissions of greenhouse gases) will lead to significant increases in the amount of western land burned by wildfires, compared to the average area burned during 1950-2003.

To read more details about the Las Conchas Fire, how the recent warm and windy weather has contributed to the fire’s spread, and what the region's weather forecast is leading into this long weekend, check out Jeff Masters’ post today over at Weather Underground.