Overview

The 2010 New Mexico fire season was affected by three main weather phenomena’s: strong El Niño to start the year, strong La Niña to finish up the year, and the transition between the two. This made for one of the most interesting fire seasons in the past 10 years. Southwest Coordination Center (SWCC) statistics through December 2, 2010, show that nearly 1000 wildfires burned around 232,000 acres. This is up slightly from the nearly 223,000 acres that burned in 2009 and around 50,000 acres above the average since 1990. There were 539 human caused fires that led to 40,800 acres. This means that the majority of the fire starts were human caused although many of those fires were small in terms of acreage burned. Lightning caused fires added up to 191,253 acres thus making up the majority of the wildfire acres.
 
Even with the well above average snowpack across New Mexico during the winter season, significant fires did impact the state. The majority of those significant fires, which required Type I and II incident management team’s, occurred during the late May through early July period. This same period reflects a typical New Mexico wildfire season. The significant wildfires tended to favor the north central mountains as well as the southeast plains and adjacent highlands. This is illustrated by Fig. 1 which shows large fire activity (greater than 100 acres in timber and greater than 300 acres in grass) through December 6, 2010. 
 thumbnail of graphic of large fires in NM in 2010
 

 Fig. 1.  Wildfires greater than 100 acres through December 6, 2010.  Courtesy of SWCC.

Due to significant changes in weather during the year, wildland fuels also observed significant changes. This led to significant moistening as well as drying of the fuel bed. These changes also acted to either enhance or dampen fire danger and growth during various portions of the year.

 Winter

The 2009/10 winter period was dominated by a strong El Niño. This phenomenon led to a very active storm track over New Mexico, especially favoring the mountain areas along and south of interstate 40. System passages were not only active but real wet. Fig. 2 shows the percent of normal precipitation which had affected the state by March 12. More telling is Fig. 3 which tallies up snow water equivalent percentages. This is especially important to fire managers because it indicates how much water, compared to normal, is stored in the snowpack. During the spring period, depending on ambient weather conditions, water tied up within the snowpack aids fuel moistening and the spring green-up. The wetter the snowpack going into the spring season, the better chance it has to provide fuel moistening effects. By mid March, snow water equivalent ranged between 200 to 300 percent of normal along and south of interstate 40 (dark blue area).     

 thumbnail of water year PON snotel  thumbnail of snow water equivalent PON

Fig. 2.  Snotel precipitation percent of normal on March 12, 2010. Courtesy of NRCS.

 Fig. 3.  Snotel snow water equivalent percent of normal on March 13, 2010. Courtesy of NRCS.

 
 
Fire business as a whole was pretty low during the winter period as very few project prescribed burns occurred. They were mostly pile burns. Fire activity did pick up during late winter to early spring period as temperatures warmed up some and breezier conditions affected the state. April appeared to be the transition month as some significant fires broke out. The most notable was the Station Fire that affected the Bosque and wildland urban interface just south of downtown Albuquerque (Fig. 4). This fire started on April 5, 2010, during a Red Flag Warning or high wind/low humidity event. Some evacuations were needed before the fire threat was mitigated. Other areas affected by wildfires included the Bosque located within the upper and middle Rio Grande Valley as well as the grassland and shrub areas found across the southeast plains and Four Corners region.
 

thumbnail of fire near downtown albuquerque on April 6, 2010

 

Figure 4.  Station Fire near downtown Albuquerque on April 6, 2010. Photo courtesy of NWS - Brent Wachter.

Spring

During the March through mid July period, sea surface temperatures rapidly changed across areas of the Pacific Ocean, trending from above normal in March to much closer to neutral by July (see Fig. 5). This led to a change in the Pacific storm track. Storm systems tended to provide abundant precipitation further north of New Mexico and allowing for more wind and Red Flag events. As a result fuels began to dry and a significant reduction in the once abundant snowpack occurred. The change especially affected the north central mountains since conditions there were closer to normal than found across southern and central areas.  By mid May snow water equivalent (Fig. 6) was well below normal across north central New Mexico - a far cry from the near to above normal readings found across that area in mid March.

SST anomalies March vs. July

thumbnail of snotel PON SWE on May 12, 2010

Fig. 5.  SST departures from normal on March 5, 2010 (top) and July 13, 2010 (bottom).

 Fig. 6.   Snotel snow water equivalent percent of normal on May 12, 2010. Courtesy of NRCS.

 
 
As one would surmise, fire business picked up as the spring progressed. Prescribed fires which dominated the first half of May became the minority after the switch date of May 15. A prescribed burn known as the H12 fire (Fig. 7) escaped its boundaries in late May and grew to a little over 5000 acres during a multi-day wind. This fire affected the Vermijo Ranch west of Raton. A Type II incident management team was called in to help manage the fire.

photo of H12 fire on May 28, 2010

 

 Fig. 7.  H12 fire on May 28, 2010.  Photo courtesy of NWS - Brent Wachter.

As the spring progressed into June, other significant wildfires affected north central and southeast New Mexico. This was a result of a significant multi-day heat wave event that occurred between June 1 through 10, but peaked between June 5- 7.  During this peak, a lightning outbreak affected the state and was followed by a multi-day wind event June 10 through June 14. Notable fires that broke out during June included the Rio (Fig. 8) which impacted the Fenton Lake and La Cueva area of the Jemez mountains. The South Fork fire (Fig. 9) impacted the Jemez Mountains west of Española. The Cuttoff fire within the Guadalupes and the Tecolate fire located northwest of Las Vegas also brought fire activity to those areas. Type I and II incident management teams were called in to help with those fires.

thumbnail photo of the Rio fire on June 1, 2010

Fig. 8.  The Rio Fire on June 1, 2010. Photo courtesy of SWCC.

 Fig. 9.  The South Fork Fire on June 12, 2010.  Photo courtesy of NWS - Brent Wachter.

Wind events began to taper off during the middle portion of June but gave way to hot temperatures and an unstable atmosphere. A few pre-monsoonal moisture intrusions led to drier thunderstorms and strong microburst winds during the latter half of the month. Active fire behavior continued and led to some plume driven fire days (Fig. 10).

Fuel conditions during the month of June varied significantly across the landscape. Note the significant greening of the fuels found in Fig. 11. Spring green-up was fairly significant due to the abundant winter moisture. However, several spring wind events, lighter precipitation during the months of May and June, plus the June multi-day heat wave dried out the surface fuel bed (needlecast/leaf litter). The Albuquerque airport ended its string of 53 days of no measurable rain on June 25. Significant freezing as late as May 25 also kept the living conifer and pine trees from moistening up as quickly as they would have otherwise. Thus, a unique combination of dry fuels and significant weather events provided June with the highest amount of fire business during the 2010 wildfire season.

photo of the South Fork Fire on June 19, 2010

photo of the South Fork Fire on June 12, 2010

 Fig. 10.  South Fork Fire on June 19, 2010.  Photo courtesy of NWS - Brent Wachter.

 Fig. 11.  New growth of grass and oak leaves with the South Fork fire burning in the background on June 12, 2010.  Photo courtesy of NWS - Brent Wachter.

 Summer

As the spring transitioned to summer, the monsoon slowly began to take shape across the state. Wetting storms were pretty hit and miss, especially across the northern tier during the first two weeks of July. At one point, it looked like July would become one of the driest July’s on record. This allowed the fire season to linger across the north, especially within the Jemez Mountains, as several resource management fires burned there. Resource management fires are allowed to burn for a fuels and resource benefit. Wetting thunderstorm coverage picked up during the latter half of July. This ultimately led to a reduction in wildfire starts and growth. Prescribed burning also picked up during the latter half of the month with a mix of project and pile burns. An especially active thunderstorm period that included two multi-day monsoon burst episodes affected the state from July 20 to August 10. One such monsoon burst period occurred from July 28 through August 1 (Fig. 12), as high pressure aloft was centered to the east of the state. The abundant and widespread moisture quickly brought an end to the wildfire season.

Satellite IR imagery with wind barbs for July 29, 2010

 

Fig. 12.  Infrared satellite image and upper level wind barbs for July 29, 2010 at 5pm MDT.

Precipitation receipts across New Mexico brought the 19th wettest July on record. This extra rainy period also promoted another significant green-up, especially within the perennial grasses. Note the greener looking scene in Fig. 13 (early July 2010) versus Fig. 14 (mid August 2010).  

La Cueva Jemez Mountains in early July

La Cueva Jemez Mountains mid August

 Fig. 13.  La Cueva Jemez Mountains on July 2, 2010.  Photo courtesy NWS - Brent Wachter.

 Fig. 14.  La Cueva Jemez Mountains on August 15, 2010.  Photo courtesy NWS - Brent Wachter.

During the latter half of August, monsoon bursts were shorter in duration as Pacific trough passages became more persistent across the northern tier of the country. A stronger trough brought drier air to the entire state during early September. Notably, this brought the first day (September 2, 2010) in which no cloud to ground lightning was observed across the state since July 5. Cold air associated with this trough also resulted in light freezing to the higher northern mountain basins such as the Moreno Valley and initiated some dormancy within the fuels there. These trough passages continued through September and supported the first Red Flag Warning issuance of the fall season across portions of the eastern plains on September 10. Light freezing also continued across the higher elevations. 

 Fall

During a remnant tropical system (Georgette) passage on September 22-23 (Fig. 16), numerous rainfall records were broken across the state. Albuquerque reported its sixth highest rainfall total ever for a calendar day. However, precipitation during the remainder of the month was a meager  0.02 inches. September was fairly dry and warm overall across the state.  

The wide ranging weather conditions led to varying fire business during the month of September. The Albuquerque NWS office fulfilled its last wildfire spot forecast request on September 19 while prescribe burning picked up. The tropical system initially put a damper on prescribed burns for a few days, but the much warmer and drier period that followed allowed prescribed burning to quickly resume. A particularly strong smoke event affected the greater Santa Fe area during the overnight of the September 28-29. This was a result of prescribed burning and an atmospheric inversion or stable layer within the atmosphere a few thousand feet above the ground.

 Radar mosaic from September 22, 2010
 

 Fig. 15.  Mosaic radar image for 600 PM MDT on September 22, 2010.

 As is typically the case, prescribed burning peaked during October. Conditions in large part were generally good for burning as they were warm and dry. Clayton recorded the second warmest October since record keeping began in 1909. A few weather systems did provide brief delays to prescribed burning. The first wetting system of the month occurred from October 5-7, while a tropical system remnant affected the state during October 15-16. The last system which brought some wetting precipitation to the state occurred on October 20-22 and coincidently brought the first snow of the season to the northern mountains (Fig. 16). Since the trough passages were so few, longer stretches were dominated by high pressure at the surface and aloft. This led to a few poor ventilation days thus shutting down or impacting prescribed burns.   

photo of Angel Fire Ski Resort on October 21, 2010

Fig. 16.  Snowfall in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on October 21, 2010. Photo courtesy Angel Fire Ski Resort.

The weather pattern turned more unsettled during November as trough passages became more vigorous as the jet stream dipped a little further south. As the month continued, some wetting precipitation affected northern portions of the state and shutting down some prescribed burns there. Otherwise, many areas across the state  reported no measurable precipitation as trough passages tended to bring more wind and cooler temperatures. Large high pressure cells affected the state in between the trough passages and brought continued periods of poor ventilation.
 
Freezing which induces dormancy within the fuels was very helter skelter across the state. The main hard freeze period affected the state a few weeks later than normal and occurred between October 25 and November 15. Prior to hard freezing, the fuels had been trending towards dormancy anyway due to lessening daylight hours and a general warmer and drier trend to the weather. Photos in Figs. 17and 18 taken at 8000 feet in the Sandia mountains show the fuel transition to dormancy.

Sandia mountains early October

Sandia mountains in late October

 Fig. 17.  Sandia Mountains on October 8, 2010 - note the green grasses and oak leaves.  Photo courtesy of NWS - Brent Wachter.

 Fig. 18.  Sandia Mountains on October 30, 2010 - note the brown grasses and oak leaves.  Photo courtesy of NWS - Brent Wachter.

December was generally another dry and warm month as the La Niña weather pattern became fully entrenched across the western U.S. A significant Chinook or downslope wind event combined with low humidity brought an uptick in wildfire activity on December 15. Some of the wildfires grew to a few hundred acres across the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains as well as a few thousand acres across the southeast plains. Much wetter conditions followed this event and mitigated fire danger and fire business during the rest of the month. Prescribed burning, between the poor ventilation days and days in which the winds weren’t too strong, continued up until the wet period of  December 16-17.

   

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