An Early Look into the 2014 New Mexico Wildfire Season
   
The 2013-14 New Mexico late fall-early winter season started out wet, however, the spigot slowly turned to barely a trickle after mid December. January was the driest on record with a statewide precipitation average of 0.03 inches. A persistent blocking ridge (Fig. 1) developed over the west coast during January. This upper level ridge steered the storm systems away from New Mexico. 500 mb heights for Jan 2014
The pattern changed during the first week of February as a strong jet undercut the blocking ridge and allowed abundant Pacific moisture to flow in from the west. The blocking ridge pattern redeveloped in a less amplified form over the west coast by mid-February and returned New Mexico to a drier and warmer pattern.  500mb heights for mid February 2014

During the winter season, it is important for wildland fire managers to anticipate the conditions of the upcoming fire season. Several metrics are examined to determine fire season severity including anticipated fuel loading and dryness. In addition, long range weather forecasts as well as drought indices and trends are considered. 

Given the current conditions, New Mexico fire managers are facing a grim and potentially extreme situation.  There is a significant carryover of ground fuels from last year's growing season. The series of photos below were taken at the same Albuquerque foothills location from June through September of 2013, and illustrate the evolution of fuel growth during 2013. The spring growing season was muted,  if not non-existent, during the spring to early summer growing period due to the poor preceding winter snowpack and a lack of spring rain.  The summer Monsoon and historic September precipitation changed conditions and allowed warm season forbs, weeds and grasses to grow with vigor. The Albuquerque foothills scene is representative of a large portion of the non-grazed New Mexico landscape, especially across the lower elevations where most of the population resides. 

  
   Photos coutesy of Brent Wachter
   
The grasses have since turned dormant and now provide significant carryover fuel. Wildland fire mangers next consider whether there has been sufficient enough heavy-wet snow to mat or compress the standing grass. Snowfall thus far has been well below normal but some areas did receive enough early season (November-early December) snow to partially mat down some of the previous grass growth. This is important because standing grass is much more susceptible to fire spread than matted grass. Figure 3 shows a photo series taken at similar times at a Sandia mountain location (at 8000 feet) east of Albuquerque from 2010 to 2014. The 2014 photo shows some grass compaction while the 2013 photo showed little grass compaction.
 photo from 2010  photo from 2011
 photo from 2012  photo from 2013
  photo from 2014    Photos courtesy of Brent Wachter
   
Many other lowland locations across New Mexico haven't fared nearly as well, with standing dead grass as far as the eye can see.  Examples are shown in the images below, for the area between Willard and Cedarvale on the left and for 10 miles southeast of Belen on the right.  An abundant grass crop that is standing tall will result in exceptionally difficult conditions for firefighters should a wildfire occur. There will be less natural barriers to try to stop or herd the fires. The scene for the Willard/Cedarvale shows a road and that provides the only barrier to fire spread.  In this case, during low humidity and windy conditions, fire embers can easily spot over the road. This has been indicative of fires that have already begun popping up across the lowlands of New Mexico.  During 2013 there was much less ground fuel across the lowlands and this significantly reduced the amount of acreage burned that year. The last year to see this much grass growth was 2011 - and a record amount of acres burned that year!
   
Between Willard and Cedarvale on January 31, 2014.  Photo courtesy of Larry Woods. 10 miles SE of Belen on February 17, 2014.  Photo courtesy of Brent Wachter.
   
New Mexico fire managers will also study current drought metrics to anticipate future trends. Fuel moisture levels are quite low across the landscape, in part due to soil moisture deficits from the significant drought that has gripped the state for the past 3 to 4 years. The graphs below show soil moisture (percent) at a depth of 20 inches at Sevilleta from March of 2010 through February of 2014. In the top panel, the plot shows that moisture decreased steadily in the summer of 2010, with no significant moisture recharges through the summer of 2013. The same values are plotted in the second graph, but by plotting values from various years on the same axis, comparisons and trends can be easier to note. The 2013 monsoon season and record precipitation in September are clearly evident as dramatic increases in moisture. Unfortunately, a lack of winter precipitation has reduced the current soil moisture at 20 inches to values just above those of the previous three winters.
  20in soil moisture at Sevilleta
20 in soil moisture at Sevilleta
   
Decreases in available soil moisture have impacted the heavier fuel groups such as timber.  Widespread areas of trees are starting to die across the higher elevations.  Snowfall and subsequent melting is the most efficient way of moistening dead wildland fuels as well as recharging live fuels during the growing season. Snowmelt, especially if it is slow, can recharge subsoil moisture levels and allow for better green-up during the spring. Snowpack is very low this year and one ski resort outside of Albuquerque closed for the season by mid February. The series of photos below were taken near the closed ski resort (10,000 feet) around February 1st each year since 2010.   At this site, 2014 is very comparable to 2013 - however many high elevation locations are currently drier than in 2013. Recall that the higher elevation timber fuels were quite dry across the New Mexico landscape during 2013 and led to unusually large high elevation fires such as the Thompson Ridge Fire and the Jaroso Fire.
  photos comparing snow depth at 10000 feet
 Photos coutesy of Brent Wachter
With large snow pack deficits already in place, the forecast for the next month or two does not look promising in terms of creating a significant snowpack. Long-range forecasters will be carefully examining sea surface temperature anomalies across the eastern Pacific.  If the eastern Pacific can warm up quickly enough during March, deep convection (large areas of thunderstorms) could be induced and translated to a moist pattern during the mid to late spring period. This could help to lessen some of the drought metrics. Climate outlooks do not currently support  above average precipitation for the spring period, thus we continue to monitor conditions closely. Without significant Spring moisture, or timely late spring - early summer wetting events, the 2014 New Mexico fire season has the potential to be extremely destructive.

USA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.