Southwest Wildfires Expand; Dangerous Weekend Ahead

Weather conditions got the best of firefighters in New Mexico this week, as two wildfires that had been burning separately for more than a week merged and grew in size, destroying at least 12 homes, and burning more than 80,000 acres to date.

The Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex grew to a total of 82,252 acres on Thursday, according to Inciweb, a U.S. Forest Service wildfire coordination website. A highly trained “fire management team” was ordered to assume command of the fire complex this weekend, “due to extreme fire behavior, proximity to private land, and continued high winds forecasted” the website said. Albuquerque, N.M., officials have issued an air quality alert through Sunday, anticipating that the smoke from the fire would move directly toward the city.

NASA satellite image of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex burning out of control in New Mexico on May 24, 2012. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

The Associated Press reported that strong winds made it impossible for firefighters to protect the forest cabins that were lost to the blaze. 

“The fire had been around about 10 days, lurking and creeping and then kaboom, it exploded,” said Tabitha Sims, secretary of the Willow Creek Landowners Association. “They made a heroic effort at trying to build a break, but I think it was unfortunate that this wind event happened to come right at the worst time.”

According to Reuters, wildfires have also been burning in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, with at least 170 square miles of land burned since mid-month.

The New Mexico wildfire has been the toughest blaze to contain, due to the combination of high winds that have repeatedly swept across the state, as well as steep terrain. The Whitewater-Baldy fire is listed as having a “high” likelihood of expanding further.

Firefighters did make progress in Arizona, though, bringing the Gladiator fire, located about 40 miles north of Phoenix, up to about 30 percent containment. Reuters reported that winds there helped bring in a more humid air mass, which helped firefighting efforts on the ground and from the air.

As Climate Central reported on May 23, long-term drought conditions along with warmer-than-average temperatures are setting the Southwest up for a very active wildfire season. Seasonal climate outlooks for the summer show that unusually hot and dry conditions are likely to continue, at least until the typical Southwest summer monsoon season kicks in sometime in mid to late July.